Encouraging Words For Discouraging Times

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV

In an effort to prepare His disciples for His coming death in Jerusalem, Jesus provided them with some encouraging news:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” – John 14:1-3 ESV

Jesus had repeatedly emphasized that His death was inevitable and unavoidable. It was part of God’s redemptive plan and, as an obedient son, Jesus was obligated to carry out the will of His Father. It was the reason behind His incarnation, a point that Jesus made perfectly clear when He said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NLT).

Without Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, the sin debt owed by mankind would remain unpaid and a sentence of death would still hang over the heads of each and every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. But Jesus did die. He was buried. He rose again and was see in His resurrected state by hundreds of His followers. Paul emphasized these facts in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen… – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 NLT

But the story of redemption didn’t stop there. We know from the gospel accounts that after Jesus appeared in His resurrected form to His disciples, He commissioned them to take the gospel message to the nations. And then He ascended back into heaven, right before their eyes. Luke gives us a glimpse of that moment in the book of Acts.

he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. – Acts 1:9 NLT

Jesus returned to His Father’s side in heaven. But the redemptive story doesn’t end there. As the disciples stood staring up into the sky, two angels appeared and gave them some very important words of encouragement.

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!” – Acts 1:12 NLT

Jesus died. He was buried. He rose again. He appeared. He ascended. And, one day, He will return. This is the very event to which Paul refers in this section of 1 Thessalonians 4. He reminds His audience that there is another important event that looms on the horizon of redemptive history. The return of Christ for His bride, the church. This is the event commonly referred to as the Rapture. This word, while not actually in the Bible, is derived from the Latin translation of the Greek word, harpazō,  translated as “caught up” in verse 17. In the Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament, this word became raptura, from which we get the term, Rapture.

The Rapture, while often confused with the Second Coming, is a completely separate end times event. It refers to the return of Christ for His bride, the church, and it will take place at the end of what is called the church age – a period of undisclosed length that includes the time in which we live. It began with the coming of Jesus and will end with His return for the church, when He takes all those who have believed in Him to join Him in His Father’s house in heaven.

All of this fits into the wedding imagery that Jesus used concerning He and the church. He is the groom and we are His bride. Technically, according to the traditional Jewish concept of marriage, we are the betrothed on Jesus. The marriage has yet to be consummated, but we are legally bound to Him, having been given to Him by His Father, just as in a traditional Jewish wedding (John 17:12). During the betrothal period, the bride and groom are legally married, but remain separated from one another.  It is only just before the actual wedding itself that the groom returns for His bride and takes her to his father’s house, where the wedding ceremony and feast are held. Jesus, having returned to His Father’s house, is preparing a place for He and His bride. Then, when the time is right, he will return for her and take her to His Father’s house, where the ceremony and the celebration  will take place.

That is the event to which Paul is referring and he appears to be bringing it up because there was confusion among the believers in Thessalonica. They had all be longing for and eagerly waiting on the Parousia or coming of Christ. The early church lived with a sense of immediacy and imminence when it came to Christ’s return. They expected it to happen any day. And Paul and the other apostles encouraged this outlook. Paul to the believers in Corinth:

But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:20-21 NLT

But the Thessalonians were beginning to have second thoughts. Some of their fellow believers had died and Jesus had not yet returned. That raised some significant questions in their minds: Where did their deceased friends and relatives go? What was their eternal fate? Was Jesus ever coming back?

And Paul addresses these concerns by providing them with much-needed assurance of the coming of Christ. For Paul, the deaths of their friends and relatives was cause for mourning, but not despair. Sadness is a natural human reaction to loss but, for believers, our loss is to be accompanied with hope. Because we have the resurrection of Jesus as a constant reminder of our future destiny.  Jesus’ death was followed by His resurrection and, by virtue of our faith in Him, we have the same outcome awaiting us. Paul told the believers in Rome:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. – Romans 6:5 ESV

And he told the believers in Corinth:

It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. – 1 Corinthians 15:52 NLT

Notice what Paul says here. Those who have died will be raised to live forever. And those who are living when Jesus returns for the church will also be transformed. That is the very same message Paul is delivering to the Thessalonians. The dead have not missed the boat. Their souls have gone to be with Jesus in heaven. Just as Jesus told the criminal on the cross, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NLT). Those believers who die prior to the Rapture go to be with Him. But the day is coming when they will return with Him and receive their new resurrected, glorified bodies. Again, Paul addressed the reality of this incredible promise in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

…our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! – 1 Corinthians 15:50-51 NLT

As Dr. Thomas L. Constable so aptly puts it: “the translation of living Christians and the resurrection of dead Christians will take place at the same time.” It is at the Rapture that all those in Christ, the living and the dead, will receive their glorified bodies, custom-made for the eternal state. As Paul puts it, “our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NLT).

Paul wanted the Thessalonians to maintain their hope, even in the face of loss. Their loved ones were not gone, they had simply gone on ahead. And the day is coming when all believers, those who have died and gone to be with the Lord and those who are still living, will be reunited and will received their resurrected, glorified bodies. And the apostle John provides us with further words of encouragement regarding that day.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

With this fantastic news in mind, encourage one another with these words.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).


Surviving and Thriving

17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy. 

1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. – 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5 ESV

Paul’s great love for the believers in Thessalonica can be seen in his words expressing his deep desire to see them again. Ever since he and Silas had been forced to leave the city under the cover of darkness due to threats against them, he had been longing to return. And while Paul had been ministering in other cities, he doesn’t give busyness as his excuse. He blames Satan. He provides no clarification or explanation, but seems to be indicating that spiritual warfare was involved. Paul was well acquainted with the reality of Satan and had first-hand experience with the invisible battle taking place in “the heavenly places.” He told the believers in Ephesus:

…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 NLT

There were a lot of places Paul wanted to go, but he wasn’t always able to squeeze them into his plans. He told the Romans:

I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. – Romans 1:16 NLT

But in this case, Paul doesn’t blame his absence on Satan. He simply states that he had been busy sharing the gospel in places where it had not yet been heard.

I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.”

This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. –Romans 15:20-22 ESV

But, for whatever reason, Paul felt that his delay in returning to Thessalonica was a blatant case of spiritual warfare. The enemy didn’t want him to go back and had set up obstacles in his path. Again, while Paul provides no specifics, he does shed light on his outlook regarding the invisible war taking place around him. The intensity of his love for the Thessalonian believers was offset by Satan’s intense hatred for them. Paul knew that they were under attack as well, and longed to return in order that he might encourage and strengthen them in their faith. He describes them as “our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 2:19 ESV). They were his whole reason for existence, and their spiritual well-being was his greatest concern. Paul wanted each and every believer to remain firm in their faith all the way to the end. Their spiritual survival and success would one day bring Paul great joy and provide him with reason for “boasting before our Lord Jesus.” Their presence in heaven will give him great pride. Paul isn’t taking credit for their salvation or saying that he will deserve honor from God for all his efforts on their behalf. He’s simply indicating that nothing means more to him than accomplishing the work given to him by God – the spreading of the gospel and the spiritual development of the church.

Paul’s apparent delay didn’t prevent him from sending Timothy in his place. He had his young disciple return to Thessalonica with instructions “to establish and exhort” them in their faith. The two Greek words Paul used provide us with insight into Timothy’s responsibilities. The first is stērizō and it means “to strengthen or make stable.” The second word is parakaleō and it means “to comfort or encourage.” This is one of the functions of the Holy Spirit Himself, whom Jesus referred to as the paraklētos or comforter. Paul wanted Timothy to build up the church in Thessalonica by establishing them in their faith and comforting them as they encountered persecution.

Paul knew that trials could easily shake the church, leaving them discouraged and disillusioned in their faith. They were going to need to proper instruction and ongoing emotional support. So, he sent Timothy to provide the church with everything from sound doctrinal instruction to much-needed encouragement to stay the course. Paul wanted them to know that affliction was to be expected. He reminds them that “we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV). When he had been with them, he had told them that trials were coming. And they had arrived just as he had predicted.

Paul had not been caught off guard by the presence of trials among the believers in Thessalonica. But he was concerned that they would allow those trials to negatively impact their walk with Christ. He knew that “the tempter” was going to do everything in his power to deceive, distract, and defeat them. Satan was going to use the presence of difficulties to cause doubts about the goodness of God and the efficacy of the Christian faith. He would be whispering in their ears, “What kind of God lets these kinds of things happen to those He claims to love?”

Paul’s greatest fear was that any believer would allow the difficulties of life to draw he or she away from God. Faith requires perseverence in the face of the inevitable trials of life. Walking with Christ will have its ups and downs. Living in a fallen world will bring its fair share of difficulties, and Paul worried about the Thessalonians taking their eyes off the prize and focusing on the temporal nature of their trials. And he knew that every believer faced the very real threat of having their faith weakened by the presence of unexpected and unwanted trials. Which is why he reminded the Roman believers not allow present suffering to distract them from the promise of future glory.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:17-18 NLT

Seeing the lost come to faith was a passion for Paul. But he was unwilling to stop there. He knew that the post-conversion life of the believer was a difficult one. Coming to faith was just the beginning. Growing in faith and confidence in the promises or God took time. Standing firm in storms of life was not easy. The spiritual battle was real and enemy’s efforts to destroy the believer’s faith would be intense and unrelenting. So, Paul sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. The Christian life requires endurance. The walk of faith demands steadfastness in the face of difficulty, and unwavering determination to stand against the inevitable attacks of the enemy.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Mutual Edification, Not Self-Glorification.

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” –  Matthew 18:7-14 ESV

Jesus is in the middle of what began as a lesson on humility and its non-negotiable requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest when Jesus intervened and, using a small child as a visual prompt, began to teach them about the need for humility, not hubris. But it’s important to understand that Jesus was not placing children in a higher position than adults. And it is unlikely that He was teaching that it’s easier for a child to be saved than an adult. His emphasis was the innocence, trust and natural humility found in a child.

When Jesus referred to “these little ones,” He was talking about those who willingly place their faith in Him, trusting Him as a child would – without guile, not driven by ego, or motivated by self-indulgence.

Jesus, knowing that His disciples were obsessed with status, reminded them that they were to accept these innocent believers in His name. They were not to categorize or rank them by outward signs of worth or treat some as more important than others. James, the half-brother of Jesus, had some strong words regarding this kind of prejudice practiced in the church.

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?

Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:1-7 NLT

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t allow status or worldly signs of significance to deceive you. Christ’s kingdom was not going to be populated by the powerful, pretentious, the popular, or the prosperous. It isn’t that these people could not have a place in His kingdom, but they would first have to become as little children: Full of humility rather than being full of themselves.

The world is full of stumbling blocks. There are all kinds of natural impediments designed to keep people from coming to Christ. And for those who do place their faith in Christ, there would be no shortage of barriers along the way, intended to keep them from growing in their faith. So, Jesus warns His disciples about the danger of becoming a source of discouragement to another believer. By arguing over who was the greatest, the disciples were inadvertently discouraging one another. It had not escaped the other nine disciples that Peter, James, and John were favored by Jesus. They had been included in His trip to the mountaintop, while the others had been left behind. Peter had received a blessing from Jesus because he had been the first to speak up and declare Jesus as the Son of God. A natural and normal competitive factor had developed between the disciples, and it left some feeling less significant than others.

This led Jesus to stress the need for mutual care and concern. And He used hyperbole to drive home the seriousness of His point. Anyone who caused a fellow believer to stumble in their walk would be better off dead. Jesus is not teaching that someone can lose their salvation for tempting another believer to falter in their faith. He is simply stressing how serious we should take our role in another person’s faith journey. Anything we do to discourage another believer by looking down on them or making them feel inferior will have destructive consequences. And Jesus stresses the seriousness of this offense by saying, “it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea” (Matthew 18:6 NLT). 

Jesus does not want His disciples to be sources of stumbling for other believers. So, He warns them to set aside their pride and to humbly serve any and all who place their faith in Him, regardless of their status in life. Again, Jesus uses hyperbole to make His point. He warns His disciples that anything in their life that might cause a brother to stumble should be eliminated at all costs. That includes their pride.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus uses hands, feet, and eyes as examples. It is with our hands that we grasp the things of this world. It is with our feet that we stray from the path that God has set for us. And it is our eyes that cause us to lust after the things of this world. The apostle John provides us with a strong word of warning concerning these things.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. – 1 John 2:15-16 NLT

It’s important to remember that this entire exchange between Jesus and His disciples began with their argument over who was the greatest. The very fact that they were debating this topic reveals that they saw themselves as somehow superior to one another. So, Jesus told them, “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:10 NLT). The Greek word Jesus used means “to think little or nothing of.” They were devaluing one another. They were assessing worth based on outward attributes. But Jesus stressed that God views all equally. He shows no partiality. Paul reminds us, “God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11 NLT). So, why should we? God cares for each and every one of His children. If one strays, He seeks them out. And when He finds them, He rejoices. So should we.

The sin-based pride of the disciples was destructive. Their obsession with self-importance and their need for recognition and status had no place in the kingdom of heaven. They were going to learn that the plight of the believer would be difficult enough in this world without having fellow believers placing roadblocks in the way. Unity was going to be essential to the success of the church. Mutual care and concern were going to be essential characteristics of the body of Christ. And the New Testament is filled with admonitions to model humility and to serve one another selflessly and sacrificially.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. – Ephesians 4:29 NLT

So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up… – Romans 14:19 NLT

We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. – Romans 15:2 NLT

Mutual edification, not self-glorification. Building up others, not pumping up ourselves. Putting others first and ourselves last. That is life in the kingdom. We are in this together. We are the body of Christ and each of us needs the other.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Oh, What Tangled Webs.

Now when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, the Amalekites had made a raid against the Negeb and against Ziklag. They had overcome Ziklag and burned it with fire and taken captive the women and all who were in it, both small and great. They killed no one, but carried them off and went their way. And when David and his men came to the city, they found it burned with fire, and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept until they had no more strength to weep. David’s two wives also had been taken captive, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel. And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters. But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God. – 1 Samuel 30:1-6 ESV

It was in his epic poem, Marmion, that Sir Walter Scott first penned the now-famous words: “Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” And no story proves the veracity of those words quite the one concerning David as he returned to Ziklag after having been sent home by Achish. No doubt, David was feeling a bit relieved after having narrowly escaped having to go to war with the Philistines and risk exposing the subterfuge behind his whole scheme. He had deceived Achish into believing that he was on his side. He had convinced the Philistine king that he and his men had been occupying their time attacking the enemies of Philistines, when in reality, they had been raiding the enemies of Israel. David never should have been in Philistia in the first place. He had received no direction from God to take his two wives along with all his men and their families and seek refuge among the enemies of Israel. But he had. And now, his life of deception was going to result in a less-than-happy reception when he returned home.

David and his men discovered that their town had been raided by Amalekites while they were away. Believing that their wives and children would be safe, David and his men had mustered for battle, under the pretense that they were going to aid the Philistines in their war against the Israelites. It is doubtful that David would have ever raised his sword against Saul or his kindred. More than likely, he and his men would have turned against the Philistines as soon as the battle started, but he would still have had to deal with Saul, his mortal enemy. David’s rejection by the Philistines was a godsend. He was blessed to have been given a reprieve by God and been allowed to go home. But what he found when he arrived was devastating. Ziklag had been burned to the ground and every person in it had been taken captive by the Amalekites, including David’s two wives. And we don’t have to imagine how David’s men reacted to the scene. They blamed David. It was all his fault. No doubt, they had questioned the wisdom of David when he first came up with his plan to hide among the Philistines. They had probably grumbled and complained as they made their way to the front lines, facing the prospect of having to fight against their own people. But now, their sorrow and frustration overflowed. We’re told that “they wept until they could weep no more” (1 Samuel 30:4 NLT). And then their sadness turned to anger.

David was now in great danger because all his men were very bitter about losing their sons and daughters, and they began to talk of stoning him. – 1 Samuel 30:6 NLT

David had been in difficult circumstances before, but nothing quite like this. His wives were gone. His men wanted to stone him. Things could not have gotten much worse. And all of it was David’s doing. He had been the architect behind this fiasco. It had been his decision to seek refuge among the Philistines. It had been his idea to use his base in Ziklag to launch raids against the enemies of Israel. He may have fooled King Achish, but he obviously had not fooled the Amalekites, who made it a point to raid and sack the very town in which David and his men lived. All the way back in chapter 27, we read:

Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish. – 1 Samuel 27:8-9 ESV

In attacking the Geshurites, Girzites and Amalekites, David had actually been doing the very thing God had commanded the Israelites to do when He gave them the land of Canaan. He had commanded that they completely destroy all the inhabitants of the land. Why? Because if they didn’t, He knew the Israelites would find themselves being negatively influenced by their presence. In a way, these pagan nations represented sin and ungodliness. They practiced idolatry and their societies were marked by immorality and godless behavior. God’s command to remove them was in order to keep the Israelites from becoming like them. But the Israelites had failed to do what God had commanded them to do. So, David’s attacks against the Amalekites had been in obedience to God’s professed will for the people of Israel, but there is no indication that God had commanded David to carry out his raids from the safety of his headquarters in Ziklag. David was attempting to do God’s will his own way. He had been trying to remain faithful to God while, at the same time, failing to trust God to keep him safe in the land of Judah. Like Abraham seeking relief from a famine by seeking refuge to Egypt, David had discovered that his plans, made apart from God’s input, had resulted in some very unsatisfactory and uncomfortable consequences.

But David found strength in the Lord his God. – 1 Samuel 30:6 NLT

This is a key moment in the life of David. In the midst of one of the most difficult moments of his life, David turned to God. The Hebrews word translated “strength” is chazaq and it carries the idea of encouragement or finding courage. David, at a very weak moment in his life, found courage by turning to God. He had made a mess of his life, but he knew that He could turn to God for strength, support, and the boldness he would need to handle the situation. With his men seeking to stone him, David sought solace and strength in God. And he would learn a valuable, life-changing lesson from this moment in his life. He would later use the very same Hebrew word when penning the words of his psalms.

Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord! – Psalm 27:14 ESV

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
    all you who wait for the Lord! – Psalm 31:24 ESV

We can weave some very tangled webs in our lives. We, like David, have the unique capacity to get ourselves in all kinds of predicaments, through disobedience or our own stubborn self-sufficiency. It is so easy to leave God out of our decision-making and then wonder how things got so screwed up. But in those moments of confusion and weakness, we need to do what David did. Turn to God. Seek strength, comfort, encouragement and courage in Him. David could have easily followed up one bad decision with yet another one. He could have begun scheming and planning, trying to figure out how to get himself out of the jam he had created. But instead, he turned to God. He found strength in the Lord his God. And in spite of all that had happened and all that David had done, God would come through. He would prove faithful yet again. And God would untangle the the web that David had weaved. He would graciously clean up the mess created by David’s choice to rely on deceit rather than divine guidance.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Gift of Mutual Encouragement.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. – Romans 1:8-15 ESV

Paul had heard about the believers in Rome. He probably had little or no awareness of any particular individuals, because he had not yet been able to visit the church there. But he had become aware of the church as a whole. “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8 ESV). The church in Rome had gained a reputation for its faith. News of their corporate commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ had been spread throughout the known world. And Paul longed to see them face to face. He prayed for them consistently and persistently asked God to allow him the opportunity to visit them. It is clear that Paul had a love for the body of Christ. He was more than an evangelist, spreading the good news about Jesus Christ and watching people come to faith in Him. Paul was a builder. He wanted to see the local congregations that were springing up all around the world grow into spiritual maturity. The majority of his letters were written to local churches and have a corporate context to them. We tend to read his letters from an individualistic viewpoint, failing to understand that his words were intended for the congregation as a whole, not the individual believer.

The church in Rome had a corporate reputation for its faith. It was as a body that they had become known for their faith, not as individuals. And somehow, with our western, individualistic mindsets, we lose sight of the fact that we have been baptized into the body of Christ, the both the local and global body of Christ, for a reason. We have become members of something far greater and far more significant than ourselves. Later on in this same letter, Paul tells the believers in Rome, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5 ESV). He wrote similar words to the church in Corinth. “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (1 Corinthians 12:18-20 ESV). Our tendency is to focus on our own spiritual growth while neglecting the well-being of the body. We concentrate all our efforts on ourselves.

But it’s interesting to note Paul’s comment to his brothers and sisters in Rome. He said, “For I long to see you, that I may impart some spiritual gift to strengthen you” (Romans 1:11 ESV). I don’t think Paul is saying that he wants to lay hands on each and every one of them and give them a spiritual gift like tongues or healing. He clarifies what he means in the very next line. “that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:12 ESV). In other words, Paul simply wanted to be a source of encouragement to them as he shared his faith with them. And he knew that they would lift him up in his own faith as they ministered to him. He was less focused on any specific spiritual gift than he was on the mutual encouragement that believers receive as members of the body of Christ. Paul’s heart was for unity in the body and a sense of shared concern for one another, which why he told the church in Corinth, “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26 ESV).

Sometimes we make far more out of the gifts than we do the purpose behind the giving of them. Paul told the Corinthian believers, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Whatever gift the Spirit has given, He has done so for the mutual benefit of the body. We exist to build up one another. My very presence within the body is other-oriented. It is not all about me – it is about US. That is why God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers to the early church –  “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13 ESV).

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV). The gift of mutual encouragement. It’s desperately needed in the church today. We are in this thing together. We are members of one body, serving one God and sharing a common faith in one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May we learn to share our gifts with one another. May we grow in our desire to love and encourage one another. And may our corporate reputation for faith in Christ spread throughout the world.

Romans 15:1-13

Maturity By Committee.

Romans 15:1-13

We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. – Romans 15:1-2 NLT

The Christian life is not a solitary excursion, but a communal effort, where we walk hand-in-hand, side-by-side with other believers on a pilgrimage of faith. This journey is meant to be done in the context of community, not in isolation. Paul’s letters were primarily written to churches, not individuals. He spent a great deal of time trying to encourage the corporate life of the local church and stressed the non-negotiable interrelationship between believers. This chapter is no different. He closed out chapter 14 with an admonition to not allow the grey areas of life to cause division within the body of Christ. According to Paul, there was nothing worth causing another believer to stumble, whether it was your right or not. Just because you have freedom to do something, doesn’t mean you should. Your first consideration should always be for the other party. Paul tells us, “We must not just please ourselves” (Romans 15:1b NLT). The Christian life is not to be self-centered, but rather it is to be selfless and sacrificial. “We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord” (Romans 15:2 NLT). Our goal should always be the edification or building up of the body of Christ, not the self-centered protection of our own rights and privileges. For Paul, Jesus was and is the greatest living example of this idea. He wrote to the Philippians, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:3-5 NLT).

We are to have the mind of Christ. We are to adopt His attitude when it came to loving others. Jesus willingly suffered the abuse and rejection of men, and returned their disdain with sacrificial love. Paul’s desire was that the believers in Rome would follow Christ’s example and learn to live in complete harmony with one another. He wanted them to share Christ’s passion for and commitment to the spiritual well-being of others. As followers of Christ, they needed to learn to live like Christ lived, with their attention and focus on the needs and cares of others. They were to “accept each other” in the same way that Christ had accepted them. In other words, not based on merit, effort or earning. One of the unique things about the church is that it is by nature a compilation or blend of a wide variety of people from all walks of life and of varying degrees of spiritual maturity. There will be strong and weak believers present. There will be mature and immature individuals within any given body of believers. There will be rich and poor, spiritual and carnal, young and old, educated and uneducated. “Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory” (Romans 15:7 NLT). When we accept one another, it glorifies God, because it reveals that He is at work in our midst, providing us with the capacity to love one another in spite of our differences. He is the one who provides us with the strength to love one another whether we deserve it or not.

We must constantly remember that we are all works in process. God is not done with His transformative work in our lives. And we must constantly remind ourselves that God has chosen to renew us within the context of community. We test, try, strengthen, and encourage one another. We not only test one another’s gifts, we help bring them out. We develop the fruit of the Spirit within the context of the local body of believers. There is a method to God’s seeming madness. He knows what He is doing. As we trust His redeeming work in our lives and accept the fact that He has chosen to do it through the relationships we have with others, we will experience hope, joy and peace. We will learn that those with whom we disagree are actually tools He has placed in our lives to accomplish His transformation of our lives. “Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13b NLT). Rather than bicker and fight over petty issues like food, clothing, worship music styles, Bible translation preferences, and a host of other grey areas, we will learn to trust that God is working through our differences, blending together a wide range of personalities, gift sets, backgrounds, and opinions, in an effort to accomplish His will for us – our holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

Father, thank You for the body of Christ, the local church. It is far from perfect, full of people like me, and therefore, prone to division and dissension. Help me to view it as the divine organism You ordained to accomplish Your redemptive work in the world and the transformative process You are doing in each and every one of our lives. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men

1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13

Standing Firm.

1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13

So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles, and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 3:7-8 NLT

You can sense the love that Paul had for the Thessalonian believers. He longed to be with them. He had tried on numerous occasions to visit them, but had been prevented. We don’t know what kinds of circumstances kept Paul from making the trip, but he believed Satan had played a role. He understood the reality and significance of spiritual warfare. He knew that the enemy was always trying to destroy the fruit of Paul’s efforts and the work of the Spirit taking place around the world. The various letters of Paul reflect that kinds of spiritual conflicts that had risen up in the churches that had sprung up since Pentecost. Legalism, syncretism, factions, false teachers, errant doctrine, and a host of other issues had made their way into these local fellowships, causing all kinds of problems. As one of the few qualified leaders available to minister to these fledgling fellowships, Paul had a strong sense of responsibility for their well-being. He knew they were under attack, just as he and Silas were. He knew their faith was being tested and wanted to encourage them to remain strong and stand firm. Unable to make the trip to see them in person, Paul and Silas sent Timothy to visit the Thessalonians in order to assess their condition. His report when he returned was positive and encouraging. Paul and Silas had sent Timothy to encourage and strengthen the young believers in Thessalonica, but what he found ended up being a source of encouragement to Paul and Silas. In spite of their difficult circumstances and the troubles surrounding them, the Thessalonians were strong in their faith. The Spirit was at work in their lives.

When he had been with them, Paul had warned them of the difficulties to come. He had not left them wide-eyed and innocent, unaware of the difficulties that accompany a life committed to Christ. “Even while we were with you, we warned you that troubles would soon come – and they did, as you well know” (1 Thessalonians 3:4 NLT). Rather than leave these young converts with an impression that the Good News meant a life devoid of bad circumstances, Paul and Silas had told them the truth. “We are destined for such troubles” (1 Thessalonians 3:3 NLT). They come with the territory. When we come to faith in Christ, we become enemies of this world. We become targets for Satan to destroy. Our very existence stands opposed to him and his plans for this world. We should not be surprised by trials or struggles. We should not be shocked by difficulties. We are immersed in a spiritual battle, surrounded by the enemy, and under constant attack. But we have the Holy Spirit to strengthen and empower us. We have the body of Christ. We have the unfailing promises of God to trust in and the unquestionable assurance of our salvation to stand on. We can and will endure to the end. And our faith in the midst of difficulty should be a source of encouragement to us. When we see one another standing firm in the face of difficulty, we should rejoice. When we see another believer struggling with trials, we should come alongside them, strengthening and encouraging them. Then when we see them come out the other side stronger and firmer in their faith, we will be strengthened as well. Paul was encouraged by the faith of the Thessalonians. He was strengthened by the news of their steadfast commitment to the cause of Christ. And he prayed that their love and faith would continue to increase. “And may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows” (1 Thessalonians 3:11 NLT).

Father, may my life be an example to all those who know me. May they be strengthened and encouraged by the way I handle and face the inevitable adversity of life. Trials are inevitable. They are part of life on this planet. But give me the faith to remain strong. Give me love for others so that I will stand by them as they struggle and rejoice with them when they come out the other side stronger in their faith. Keep us going and growing, Lord. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men

Proverbs 27d

Timing Is Everything.

“A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning will be taken as a curse.” – Proverbs 27:14 NLT

When my wife was growing up, she was regularly woken up early on Saturday mornings by the sound of two pans being banged together as her father attempted to get the family up for breakfast. I remember the first time she told me that story, I couldn’t help but have homicidal thoughts. Just the idea of someone waking me up in such a noisy, obnoxious way on the one day I could sleep in was too much for me. While I’m sure he meant well, there had to be a better way. I can’t read the verse above and not think about this story. And I think my wife inherited some of her father’s traits, because when our children were young she would wake them up each morning by yelling up the stairs, “Rise and shine! This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” You could hear the groans coming from upstairs as the kids covered their ears with their pillows, pulled the covers up over their heads and attempted to go back to sleep. Not once did they rise and shine or rejoice in the day that the Lord had made. No, their demeanor was less than cheery and their outlook on the morning, far from positive.

While no real harm was done by my father-in-law or my wife, these stories remind me how important timing and tact cab be when it comes to our relationships with others. A lot of hurt and harm can be done by well-meaning individuals, all because they fail to think about how their actions might be perceived and received by others. Even the right words spoken at the wrong time can be hurtful. How many times have you had someone quote you a verse of Scripture when you were going through a difficult time, only to have that passage feel like fingernails on a chalkboard rather than encouraging words? Hearing the words, “All things work together for good” when you are in the midst of difficulties is not always uplifting or encouraging. Having someone cheerfully remind you that “God loves you!” when you are feeling unloved and uncared for, does not change your outlook or your circumstances. If anything, it may reinforce your feelings of abandonment and isolation. It may even make you angry.

When reading the verse above, I can’t help but think about Ecclesiastes 3, the chapter made famous by the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” sung by Roger McGuin and the Byrds. The Book of Ecclesiastes was also written by King Solomon and in chapter 3, he reminds us about the importance of timing. He says, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1 NLT). In God’s grand design, there is a time for everything. He goes on to elaborate.

A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.

Timing is everything. There are times when banging pots and pans together is appropriate, and there are times when it is not. There are times when a cheerful greeting is encouraging, and there are times when it is anything but that. The point is that we need to assess the situation and determine the right action or words for the right moment. There are going to be those times when the right thing is to listen, not speak. There will be occasions where we simply cry with someone rather than try to fix them or quote Scripture at them. The challenge is to know how to determine the right response for each and every occasion. That takes wisdom. And wisdom comes from God. Only He can give us the discernment we need to offer the right response at the right time, each and every time.

Father, I desire the discernment to know how to respond well. I don’t want to be someone who means well, but ends up doing harm in the long run. I need Your wisdom and insight so that I know how to offer the right response at just the right time. Amen.

Ken Miller

Grow Pastor & Minister to Men