Misdirected Effort

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. – Philippians 3:12-21 ESV

As we saw in yesterday’s post, our faith in Christ is meant to be practical and visible. It should show up in the way we live our lives and give proof of the Spirit’s presence within us. Our faith can manifest itself in the fruit of the Spirit flowing out from us and through the supernatural abilities with which He has gifted us. Leading and loving are both evidence of the Spirit’s presence. His power can show up in the capacity to provide spiritual nourishment to God’s people or by meeting their physical needs with food, clothing, and shelter. But regardless of what we do, we are to recognize that we do it in the strength of the Spirit of God and for the glory of God.

If anyone speaks, he should speak as one conveying the words of God. If anyone serves, he should serve with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory and the power forever and ever. – 1 Peter 4:11 BSB

But there is another important factor that should influence what we do, and Paul addresses it in his letter to the believers in Philippi.

There is little debate over the fact that Paul was a man on a mission. He was driven. He was almost obsessive-compulsive in his desire to obey the command of Christ to carry the gospel message to the Gentiles. He had done so in the face of all kinds of obstacles, including shipwreck, beatings, a stoning, hunger, thirst, imprisonment, and constant opposition to his message and ministry. But, like the Energizer Bunny, he just kept going and going. But why? What was his motivation? How did he manage to maintain his enthusiasm and not lose hope when faced with constant threats to his life and the unceasing attacks on the churches he had worked so hard to plant?

He provides us with the answer in the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians. And it is in the form of a personal glimpse into his own approach to his spiritual life and ministry.

First of all, Paul admits that he ’s a work in process. He’s not some kind of religious rock star or spiritual superhero. In fact, he confesses to the Philippians, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). When it came to spiritual maturity, Paul flatly denied that he had “arrived.” Instead, he tells the Philippians, “I press on.” Then he claims to be “straining forward to what lies ahead.” Paul had an objective in mind. But what was it? Was he attempting to achieve a state of fully realized spiritual maturity in this life? Did he believe that he could somehow work his way toward sinless perfection this side of heaven?

The answer is no. Look closely at his choice of words. He said that he was “straining forward to what lies ahead.” He claimed to be pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul had an objective in mind. He lived with a sense of purpose that was based on a well-defined outcome or destiny. Some might way that Paul lived with his eyes set on heaven, but I think there was more to it than that. Look at how he describes his goal for living.

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10-11 NET

Paul had been around long enough to know that the Christian life, this side of heaven, was going to be marked by suffering. But he also knew that the end result of any suffering we experience in this life was nothing when compared to our future glorification or resurrection. Which is exactly what he told the believers in Rome:

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

For Paul, this life was temporary. It was a path that led to a preferred future in a much better environment. And he lived with the reality of that future constantly on his mind and permanently in his line of sight.

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

Paul lived with the end in mind. He viewed the Christian life like a race or a journey. In race, each runner has his eye focused on the finish line. They share a common objective. Every one of them is running with the finish line as their final objective. Not all will win, but they all need to run in order to complete the course. And Paul used this racing analogy to encourage the Corinthian believers.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

Paul was a man who ran to win. He understood the reason behind Jesus’ calling of him. Yes, he had been called to be an apostle, a messenger of the good news of Jesus Christ. But, more importantly he had been called so that one day he might experience the sinless perfection promised to him by Jesus Christ and made possible by His sacrificial death on the cross. Which is why Paul said, “I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). Glorification is God’s goal for every believer, so it should be our goal as well. We should settle for nothing less than that for which Jesus Christ died, our ultimate transformation into His likeness, complete with a glorified body and a sinless, perfectly holy character.

This entire passage is like a donut. Verses 12-17 and 20-21 surround verses 18-19. Those two verses form a kind of hole in the passage in which Paul places a negative example for the Philippians to avoid. In verse 17, Paul invites the Philippians to imitate him and to learn from anyone else in the church who follow his example. But then he warns of another group within the church whose behavior was not to be emulated. He describes these people in harsh terms, calling them “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18 ESV). That’s not exactly politically correct terminology. But Paul sees these individuals as dangerous because their behavior was actually anti-gospel. Their lives were focused on the wrong thing. Rather than fixing their eyes on the prize to come, they were looking to enjoy all their blessings in this life. That is what Paul means when he states that “their god is their belly” (Philippians 3:19 ESV). They were all about satisfying their physical desires and appetites. They wanted to good life in this life, not the one to come. They wanted heaven on earth.

Rather than recognizing that Jesus had died so that they might live with the end in mind, with their hopes focused on their future glorification, they preferred to live in the moment. They lived with their minds set on earthly, rather than as citizens of heaven. And Paul states that “their end is destruction” (Philippians 3:19 ESV). In other words, what they had chosen to pursue was not going to produce what they were expecting.

But Paul reminds the Philippians that their citizenship is in heaven. That is their destiny and their final destination. But Paul is emphasizing much more than a change of address. He is stressing a change that will take place in our nature.

He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own. – Philippians 3:21 NLT

That is the goal. That is the objective. It is what God has in store for each and every believer and Paul would have us live our lives with that end in mind. We will not achieve that glorious state in this life, but if that is what God has in store for us, shouldn’t we make that our life’s focus? Wouldn’t it make sense to run the race with the actual finish line in mind? If not, we will run aimlessly, focusing our energies on the wrong goals and wondering why the promised prize remains beyond our grasp.

Yes, we have been saved, but as Paul reminds us, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is coming back one day and He will finish what He started. He will complete what He began. And we are to live with that end in mind.

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

 

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Fruitful Faith

14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

17 So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. 20 How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? – James 2:14-2 0NLT

Without the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life would be impossible to pull off. Not only that, without the Holy Spirit, the hope of anyone becoming a Christian would be impossible. It is only by the work of the Spirit that anyone is transformed from darkness to light, from death to life, and from condemned sinner to forgiven saint. Paul told Titus that prior to the Spirit’s divine help, “we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other. ” (Titus 3:3 NLT). And Paul followed up this less-than-flattering portrait of our pre-salvation condition with some very good news.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. – Titus 3:4-6 ESV

God saved us, out of His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit was made possible because of the sacrificial death of Jesus. His perfect obedience to the will of His Father, demonstrated by His incarnation and, ultimately, His crucifixion, is what made the Holy Spirit available to sinful men and women. And it is the Holy Spirit who gives new life to those dead in their trespasses and sins, enabling them to see for the very first time the wonderful gift of God’s grace as expressed through the sacrifice of His own Son for the sins of mankind.

Yet, the Spirit is often treated like the red-headed stepchild of the Trinity. We can easily overlook His significance and underappreciate His role in our spiritual lives. Or we can over-emphasize those aspects of the Spirit’s presence and power that are more flamboyant and fantastic. The gifts of the Spirit can suddenly become our primary focus, causing us to seek those gifts that come with greater authority, increased visibility, and that give us an air of superior spirituality. This was the problem Paul confronted among the believers in Corinth.

It seems that the congregation in Corinth was using the gifts of the Spirit as a litmus test for measuring spirituality. There were those who were guilty of viewing their particular gift as a badge of honor, rather than seeing it as an undeserved byproduct of the Spirit’s presence within them. And those who had the more flamboyant and visible gifts, such as tongues or prophecy, were wrongly assuming that their more spectacular gifts were proof of their superior spirituality. But Paul corrected this misperception.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 NLT

Each and every gift present within the church in Corinth had been given by the Spirit, based on His divine determination alone. It had nothing to do with the spirituality of the one receiving the gift. And just as with the fruit of the Spirit, the spiritual gift given by the Spirit was not intended for the blessing of the recipient.

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. – 1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT

And every gift was necessary. There was no particular gift that carried greater weight or worth. The gifts, made possible by the Holy Spirit and meted out at His discretion, were intended to bless the body of Christ, not the individuals who possessed the gifts.

To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. – 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying here. Notice how many times he writes, “the Spirit gives.” There is no indication that any of the gifts are given based on merit. No, Paul states that it is the Spirit who distributes all these gifts and He alone decides which gift each person should have. It’s not based on personality, spirituality, or inherent capability. It is a gift, and it is intended for the well-being of the body of Christ.

So, what does this any of this have to do with the words of James concerning faith and works? Paul is talking about gifts given by the Spirit, and James seems to be talking about practical expressions of faith. Paul mentions such things as tongues, prophecy, healing, wisdom, and discernment, but James focuses on what appear to be more mundane and practical expressions of faith like sharing food or clothing with a brother or sister in need.

But there is a common thread between these two passages, and it has to do with our outward behavior. Both men are dealing with the outer expressions of our inward faith. Paul is discussing spiritual gifts, and James is dealing with practical manifestations of faith. And both men would strongly assert that any hope we have of doing either is based on God, not us. As Paul told the church in Philippi: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT).

And James told the believers to whom he wrote, “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you” (James 1:5 NLT). James wanted them to know that God was the source of all their needs. Which is why he reminded them, “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father” (James 1:17 NLT).

Both of these men are dealing with the reality of the Spirit’s presence within us flowing out of us in practical ways that end up blessing all those around us. For James, the declaration of faith in Christ that wasn’t accompanied by Christ-like behavior was worthless. It wasn’t true, saving faith. Because saving faith results in the Spirit’s presence and power. And that power is practical, producing spiritual fruit that blesses all those around us and gifts that minister to the body of Christ. And not only that, the power of the Spirit is evidenced by the simple, yet practical ways in which we love and care for those around us.

James will not allow us to over-spiritualize our faith. He will not let us become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Which is why he uses a very practical, real-life illustration to keep us grounded.

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT

In Corinth, the believers were bickering over who had the most important spiritual gift. They were jockeying for position within the church based on what they believed to be the perceived importance of the various gifts. And, in doing so, they were missing the point entirely.

James was dealing with people who were putting way too much emphasize on their displays of religiosity. They were consumed with impressing one another and intent of giving the appearance of spirituality. But James wouldn’t let them get away with it.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

They were guilty of showing partiality by showing preference for the haves over the have-nots. In doing so, they were violating the royal law: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8 NLT).

The practice of partiality, the desire for prominence, the jockeying for spiritual stature, and the fruitlessness of faith are all constant dangers we face as believers. And Paul and James would both have us understand that any hope we have of avoiding these pitfalls is an awareness of our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. He has given us gifts, and they are meant to bless others. He will produce fruit that is meant for the good of others. And His power will result in good deeds being done by us – giving ample evidence that our faith is real.

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

 

But As For You…

11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. – 1 Timothy 6:11-16 ESV

Flee. Pursue. Fight. Take hold. Keep.

In just six short verses, Paul provides his young protégé, Timothy, with at least five imperatives or commands. And at least one of those commands includes six subsets or categories. Paul warns Timothy to run for his life, getting as far away as he can from false doctrine because it can lead to conceit, controversy, and unproductive quarreling over words. And those things will be produce jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions (1 Timothy 6:4-5 NLT). 

But it wasn’t enough that Timothy avoid false teaching like the plague. In running from the negative, Timothy was to run toward the positive. Paul tells him to “pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 NLT). That word “pursue” is diōkō in the Greek and it means “to run after.” It pictures a runner in a race who is actively pressing on toward the finish line. Paul used this imagery in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

He used the very same illustration when writing to the believers in Philippi. In fact, in this passage he uses the very same Greek word: diōkō.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on [diōkō] to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on [diōkō] to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:12-14 NLT

Paul wanted Timothy to run from one thing and run towards something else in its place. And Paul was quite specific about what Timothy was to pursue or press on toward: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Those qualities or characteristics were to be Timothy’s end goal. But was Paul telling Timothy to achieve these things? Was he commanding his young brother in the faith to somehow increase these qualities in his life? Probably not. Because Paul told the Corinthians, “because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Paul wasn’t demanding that Timothy make himself more righteous or godly. He wasn’t suggesting that Timothy could or should increase his faith, ramp up his capacity to love, grow in his ability to persevere, or improve the degree of his gentleness.

But there is always a risk when we come across a passage like this. We read those commands from the pen of Paul and we immediately begin to think in terms of self-effort. We hear Paul telling us to flee, pursue, fight, take hold, and keep. It’s a list and we tend to like lists because they provide us with tangible, measurable and, for the most part, achievable objectives for which to strive. Lists trigger the built-in performance mindset that exists in each and every one of us.

But is that Paul’s point? Is he really telling Timothy to achieve? It’s important to note that Paul refers to Timothy as a “man of God.” He doesn’t call him a man of God in the making or a work in process. No, he addresses Timothy as who he is: a man of God, and then he gives him five commands:

…flee these things

…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness

…fight the good fight of the faith

…take hold of the eternal life to which you were called

…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach

And Timothy is to do these things “until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, they are to be lifelong objectives or goals. But why? Because they are God’s goals for us. He has sanctified us or set us apart that we might reflect His image as we live in the power of His Spirit and exhibit the new nature He has made possible through His Son’s death on the cross.

Paul is not providing us with a to-do list of religious exercises to perform in order to improve our spiritual health. He is not asking us to become something we are not. He addressed Timothy as a man of God for a reason. Timothy was a man of God. And Paul wanted him to live as who he was. But to do so was going to entail a change of focus, a new way of Timothy seeing himself. Paul emphasized this new perception to the believers in Corinth.

Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NLT

Paul provided a similar reminder to Titus, addressing the change that takes place in the life of a believer and the need to view embrace a radically different perspective.

Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other.

But—

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.  – Titus 3:3-7 NLT

It is not that we have no role to play in the process. But where we tend to focus all our attention on activities to be performed, Paul would have us recognize the radical transformation that has been provided for us by God.  He saved us. He washed away our sins. He gave us new birth and new life. He poured out His Spirit. He made us right in His sign. And He gave us the confidence that eternal life is ours, not because of anything we do, but because of who we are in Christ.

Our natural tendency is to look for something we can do to earn God’s favor. We’re performance-driven, rewards-oriented creatures who are hard-wired for self-achievement. And while Paul had a type-A, driven personality, he also confessed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). Paul prayed on behalf of the Colossian believers that they would be strengthened with all power, according to his [Jesus] glorious might” (Colossians1:11 ESV). And Paul was happy to boast about his own weaknesses and insufficiencies so, as he put it, “the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV).

The Christian life involves effort. But there is no place for earning. It requires energy on our part but, more than anything else, it demands a new way of seeing ourselves. We are children of God. We are filled with the Spirit of God and, as a result, have the power to…

…flee these things

…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness

…fight the good fight of the faith

…take hold of the eternal life to which you were called

…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach

Not in our own strength or according to our own effort. Not for our own glory or in order to earn God’s favor. But in total dependence upon Him and in full recognition that, as Paul put it, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 ESV). So, by all means, flee, pursue, fight, take hold, and keep. But do so because of who you are, not because of what you hope to become.

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

 

Boys to Men

1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? – 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 ESV

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 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, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV

Spiritual maturity. Among those who consider themselves Christians, there are few who would argue over the fact that spiritual growth is a non-negotiable biblical mandate. We can all relate to Paul’s use of infancy and adulthood as a comparative example of our Christian experience. When someone comes to faith in Christ, they display the characteristics of a child: Innocent faithfulness, trusting reliance, and a natural need to be led and fed. But it is only normal to expect infants to grow and mature into the next phase of life. We anticipate growth. As parents, we encourage and help facilitate it. And, as Christians, we understand that our spiritual maturity follows a similar pattern. It begins with new birth, the God-ordained and Spirit-empowered transformation of one who was dead into new life.

…even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… – Ephesians 2:5 ESV

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses… – Colossians 2:13 ESV

Jesus told Nicodemus, a fully mature man who was a proud member of the party of the Pharisees: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Jesus’ analogy went over the head of this learned religious leader and he responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV). He missed the point altogether. Unaware of his own state of spiritual death, Nicodemus could not understand what Jesus meant by new birth. But everyone who comes to faith in Christ is born again or made new. Or as Paul put it, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).

It is the new birth, made possible by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, that makes it possible for believers to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 ESV). Or as Paul later described it, “the new way of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6 ESV). The new birth is to lead to new life. Just as we view the birth of a baby as the beginning of life, to be followed by the normal and natural marks of ever-increasing maturity, so God sees our new birth in Christ as the beginning of a life marked by spiritual growth. Which is why Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provided the following directive to followers of Christ: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation…” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV).

We are to grow. It’s expected. And the lack of growth is to be viewed as unnatural and abnormal. It is not what God intended for us. In fact, Peter reminds us, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). He has provided us with new birth and a new nature. He has placed His Holy Spirit within us and placed us in the body of Christ. He has given us His Word to teach us, the Spirit to lead us, and the family of God to care for us. God has given us everything we need to live the life to which He has called us. And that life is to be marked by ever-increasing evidence of spiritual maturity.

Look closely at Paul’s words to the believers in Ephesus. He told them that Christ had given “gifts” to the church, in the form of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These divinely gifted individuals were “gifted” to the church by Christ and given the responsibility to “equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And Paul infers that their job would not be complete “until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). Talk about job security.

None of us are there yet. We have not yet arrived to the full and complete standard of Christ. But then, neither had Paul. He openly confessed, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). While Paul fully understood that he stood before God as fully righteous because he bore the righteousness of Christ, he also knew that there were areas of his life that did not measure up to that reality. His old nature still had a habit of showing up and causing him to act in spiritually immature ways. His flesh was constantly doing battle with the Spirit within him. He made this painfully clear in Romans 7.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. – Romans 7:18-20 NLT

But while this internal battle was an ever-present reality for Paul, he also understood that his old nature had been crucified with Christ on the cross, which is why he could say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).

Like Paul, we have been sanctified, set apart by God for His use. He has placed His Spirit within us and placed us within the body of Christ. He has provided us with a host of gifted individuals whose sole responsibility it is to equip and prepare us for the work of building up the body of Christ. And Paul makes God’s objective in all this quite clear: “Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT).

Maturity in place of childishness. Spiritual stability rather than the easy manipulability that too often accompanies immaturity. It is not that God doesn’t expect immaturity. It is normal and natural. It has its place. But He has provided all that is required for our spiritual growth and development. God has given us all we need for living godly lives. But we must avail ourselves of His gifts and graces. We must rely upon His Spirit. We must take advantage of the wisdom provided by His Word. We must submit to the authority of those He has placed in our lives as our spiritual fathers and mothers, tasked with the responsibility of equipping us for the work of the ministry.

Boys do not become men in isolation. They require care, discipline, instruction, and love. Infants left to themselves will grow, but not for long. And the same is true for believers. Any man or woman who attempts to grow more like Christ apart from the body of Christ will find themselves tossed and blown by every wind of new teaching. Their lives will be marked by jealousy and strife, immaturity and instability. And rather than being the spiritual people God has called them to be, they will be immature, stunted in their growth and stuck in the early stages of spiritual infancy.

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

 

No Condemnation

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11 ESV

No condemnation. Let those two words sink in.

Don’t allow yourself to blow past them by treating them with that brand of apathy that so often accompanies over-familiarity. Many of us have read this passage so many times that it no longer carries any meaning for us. But if you keep in mind all that Paul has said in the first seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, the words, “no condemnation” should carry much greater significance for us.

Paul opened his letter with the sobering words: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). The truth they suppressed was God’s revelation of Himself through creation. People had no excuse for refusing to acknowledge God because He had made Himself visible and knowable through all that He had made. But mankind chose to ignore God. And Paul states that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28 ESV). And Paul provides a less-than-flattering list of the things they did that “ought not to be done.” It includes every kind of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slander, insolence, pride, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, and gossiping. And in chapter two, Paul drops the bombshell that “the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2 ESV). And just so there’s no question as to what Paul means by judgment, he states, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (Romans 2:9 ESV).

So, who does evil? According to Paul, everyone. There is no one who will escape God’s judgment because all stand before God as guilty.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

No one will escape God’s judgment, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). And just so we understand what that judgment entails, Paul tells us: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV).

Now, look at those two words again: No condemnation.

Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under God’s righteous and just condemnation. Which means that His judgment of guilt, which brings with it a mandatory penalty of death, has been lifted. We stand before God, the judge of the universe, as those who are no longer condemned because of our sin. But why? Is it because we got our proverbial act together? Has God removed our guilty sentence because we have somehow reversed our behavior and made ourselves more acceptable in His sight? Of course not.

Paul’s whole point is that we stand uncondemned because we are in Christ. At one point, we stood before God as His enemies, but “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). We were made right with God, not because of anything we did to earn or deserve it, but because of what Jesus did on our behalf.

We now enjoy “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). His death paid the penalty for our sin. He gave His life in our place, presenting Himself as the sacrificial substitute who took away the sins of the world. And His death was necessary because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

His death on our behalf has provided release from condemnation, complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and the promise of eternal life instead of eternal judgment.

But what does this have to do with sanctification? Everything. Notice how Paul links our release from condemnation to our freedom from the law of sin and death. That word “freedom” is vitally important to understanding what it means to stand as uncondemned before God. Our release from condemnation was not temporary or limited to a point in time. We weren’t released for a moment and then left to live under the threat of future condemnation. And yet, that is how many of us view the Christian life. We live under the constant fear of falling back under God’s condemnation based on what we do or don’t do. In other words, we see our behavior as the determiner of our status before God. And in doing so, we display a flawed understanding of what it means to stand uncondemned before God.

But look closely at what Paul says:

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 ESV

Back in chapter three, Paul told us the sobering news that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20 ESV). No one can be made right with God through adherence to the law. Why? Because the law was designed to make man aware of God’s holy requirements. It told us what God expected, but had no power to assist us in living up to those expectations. Like a speed limit sign on the side of the road, the law displayed God’s expectations and condemned our violation of them. It couldn’t make us obey, but it could expose us when we failed to do so.

But Paul says there is a new law at work in our lives. He describes it as “the law of the Spirit of life.” When we hear the word, “law,” we tend to think in terms of restrictions and binding requirements that keep us from doing what we want to do. But the Greek word Paul uses is nómos, and it has a much broader and more pleasant meaning behind it. According to Strong’s Concordance, it is derived from the Greek word “νέμω némō (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals). The law was intended to be prescriptive, not restrictive. The Mosaic law had benefits. It gave directions for life and provided God’s prescribed way for living in unbroken fellowship with Him. In the 23rd Psalm, David describes this prescriptive nature of God’s law. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3 ESV). Through the law, God guided, directed, and protected His people. But the law was weakened by man’s flesh or sin nature. Man couldn’t follow willingly or obediently.

So when Paul speaks of “the law of the Spirit of life,” he is telling us that God has provided us with a new way to live in fellowship with Him. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 ESV). The key is the last phrase in these verses. We are to walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh. We are to live our lives in obedience to and dependence upon the Spirit of God. He is the nómos or prescribed way to live in fellowship with and obedience to God. And Paul provides us with a vivid contrast of the choice that lies before us each and every day as God’s children. “Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God” (Romans 8:5-8 NLT). 

Our sinful nature is alive and active. But we are no longer slaves to it. We have been set free from its control. We now have the Spirit of God also living within us, providing us with direction for living a God-honoring life and the power to accomplish it. But we must choose to live under His control and not our own. We must submit to His leadership. We must desire what He desires and long for those things that He has determined as best for us. But in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul reminds us of the constant battle going on within us. “The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other…” (Galatians 5:17 NLT). If we try to please God through our flesh, we will fail. But if we live our lives in dependence upon the Spirit of God, His prescribed means of living a godly life, we will experience life, peace, joy, contentment, and the transformation of our lives into the likeness of Christ. And no threat of condemnation.

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

 

Making An Impact

31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32 and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. – Luke 4:31-32 ESV

39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” – Mark 15:39 ESV

We have already examined the fact that man was made in the image of God, but sin has marred that image, making it impossible for man to bear the likeness of God as originally intended. Yet, the Bible explains that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became a man just like Adam, “being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7 ESV). The author of Hebrews tells us: “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14 NLT).

And, as a man, Jesus became “the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). The apostle John states that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18 ESV). Jesus became the consummate human model of the divine, living His life in such a way that His Father’s character was perfectly displayed for all to see. But Jesus wasn’t simply a man attempting to act in god-like ways, He the God-man, 100-percent human and 100-percent divine. He was literal God in literal human flesh. The apostle John put it this way:

In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. – John 1:1-5, 14 ESV

Jesus was God in the flesh. The Latin word, incarnātus, from which we derive our English word, incarnate, literally means “to make into flesh.” The term, incarnation, refers to Jesus’ coming to earth in the form of an infant son born to Mary through the Holy Spirit. This miraculous union between divinity and humanity allowed Jesus to demonstrate how man was always intended to live, in unbroken fellowship with God the Father and in perfect obedience to His will.

Jesus did what no other man had ever been able to do before: Live a sinless life that demonstrated the manner in which all men had been intended to bear the image of God. And His actions and words are recorded in the Gospels, providing us with a primer on the sanctified life. His life is provided as a model for what it means to be a child of God, filled with and empowered by the Spirit of God. He is the icon of godliness and the one to whom we look for guidance and inspiration for godly living.

The two verses that opened this post are meant to provide two different occasions where Jesus modeled the Christ-life for us. One involves His teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Luke records that the audience in the synagogue that day “were astonished at his teaching” because He spoke with authority. His words carried weight and demanded a response. He wasn’t simply sharing His opinion or quoting the insights of others. He spoke authoratatively, as one who was confident in what He had to say. He spoke truth. And He was confident in doing so because His source was God the Father. Jesus had made it clear that His words were those of God.

“I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” – John 8:28 ESV

Jesus operated according to the will of His Father. Everything He said and did was ordained by God.

“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” – John 5:30 ESV

This is what it means to bear the image of God. It is to reflect His character by doing His will and, by doing so, to model what it means to be His child. When Jesus spoke that day in the synagogue, the people were amazed at His words because He spoke the words of God. He delivered the message of God. But that message wasn’t always well received. The Pharisees refused to hear what Jesus had to say.

“I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.” – John 8:42-45 ESV

Jesus spoke for God. He knew the will and the words of God, and He wasn’t afraid to share what He knew with others. That is what it means to bear God’s image. It is to be His hands and feet, acting in ways that reflect His will, but it is also to be His messenger, declaring His truth even to those who do not want to hear it.

The second verse is found in the story of Jesus’ death. As He suffered and died, a lone Centurion, was brought to a place of faith by all that He had seen Jesus endure. He had witnessed Jesus being beaten and abused, and had probably taken part in the proceedings. He had seen Jesus being humiliated, tortured, and brutally crucified, but had never heard Jesus utter a single word in anger. This man had witnessed exactly what the prophet Isaiah had predicted

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. – Isaiah 53:7 ESV

The apostle Peter records, “He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly” (1 Peter 2:23 NLT).

Jesus bore the image of God the Father, and He did so flawlessly. He obeyed perfectly, even to the point of submitting Himself to death on a cross, all so He could accomplish the will of His Father. And that is what we have been asked to do. We have been chosen by God to be His ambassadors on this earth, bearing His message to a lost and dying world. Paul encourages us to “Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Philippians 2:15 NLT).

Peter tells us, “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Peter 2:12 NLT). Jesus modeled the sanctified life for us. He provided us with a living example of what it means to live set apart to God. From its humble beginnings in Bethlehem to its minutes on the cross, His life brought glory and honor to God. The Jews in the synagogue had been amazed at the authority of His words. The centurion had been blown away by the conduct of Jesus as He suffered and died.

Jesus bore the image of God wherever He went and in all that He did. People couldn’t help but notice that this man was different. They didn’t always like what they saw or heard, but they couldn’t ignore the fact that Jesus was different. By living His life according to the will of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus made an impact on the lives of all with whom He came into contact. At one point in Jesus’ earthly ministry, He miraculously healed a paralized man, and Matthew records, “Fear swept through the crowd as they saw this happen. And they praised God for giving humans such authority” (Matthew 9:8 NLT).

Jesus, the image-bearer, made an impact wherever He went. And so should we.

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., Caro l Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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

 

Do Not Be Afraid

1 “For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.

“What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will return your payment on your own head swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border. Behold, I will stir them up from the place to which you have sold them, and I will return your payment on your own head. I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away, for the Lord has spoken.” Joel 3:1-8 ESV

As chapter three opens, Joel is continuing his description of “the day of the Lord,” providing further detail regarding the activities surrounding that future period of time. Not only will God bring undeserved restoration to His chosen people, in keeping with His covenant promises to them, but He will bring well-deserved judgment upon the nations – all those who remain unrepentant and unaccepting of His gracious offer of salvation through faith in His Son.

Joel delivers a two-part message from God Almighty, stating, “I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem“ and “I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:1-2 ESV). And God makes it perfectly clear what He has in store for the nations: “I will enter into judgment with them there” (Joel 3:2 ESV). And the reason for His judgment is two-fold. It will be because these nations rejected Him as God, but also because they abused the people of God.

Back in the book of Genesis, we have recorded the covenant promise made by God to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). Now, centuries later, God is assuring the people of Judah that He is going to keep that promise and fully fulfill it during the day of the Lord. Even during Joel’s day,, there were nations that stood opposed to Judah. The Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel, destroying their capital city of Samaria and taking thousands of their people captive. And the Assyrians had also invaded the land of Judah, conquering dozens of their cities and villages, while killing and enslaving thousands of their citizens as well. And God has already warned Judah that the Babylonians will be showing up at some point to destroy the city of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple to Yahweh. And the Babylonians will humiliate thousands of Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens by taking them back to Babylon as lowly slaves.

Yet, God assures the people of Judah that He will one day restore their fortunes and pay back all these nations for the way they treated His chosen people. And He doesn’t mince words or leave anything to the imagination when describing their crimes against his people.

“…they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.” – Joel 3:2-3 ESV

Joel describes God’s future judgment against these guilty nations as taking place in the valley of Jehoshaphat. While there is no valley known by that name found in or around Jerusalem, it would seem that this is meant to be a reminder to an event that took place earlier in Judah’s history. Jehoshaphat was the fourth king of Judah, and he was considered a good king, “because he walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel” (2 Chronicles 17:3-4 ESV). He even instituted a series of religious reforms, removing the false gods and sending out men to teach the people of Judah the Law of God.

But Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, and agreed to go into battle alongside the Israelites against the Syrians. Even though a prophet of God warned that this battle would prove to be a total route, Jehoshaphat and Ahab went ahead with their plans and lost. Not only that, Ahab was killed. And Jehoshaphat received a rebuke from God.

“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord. Nevertheless, some good is found in you, for you destroyed the Asheroth out of the land, and have set your heart to seek God.” – 2 Chronicles 19:2-3 ESV

But not long after this, Jehoshaphat received news that an alliance of nations was preparing to come against them. Having heard this news, the king assembled the people and prayed to God for His help, and He responded by miraculously routing the enemies of Judah. The book of 2 Chronicles provides further insight into the activities of God surrounding that eventful day.

“Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” – 2 Chronicles 20:15-17 ESV

God promised to fight for them. He would judge their enemies on their behalf, and the people of Judah would not have to lift a finger. In fact, they showed up the next day and found a valley filled with dead enemies and the spoil of battle.

When Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the horde, and behold, there were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped. When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take their spoil, they found among them, in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. On the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Beracah, for there they blessed the Lord. Therefore the name of that place has been called the Valley of Beracah to this day. – 2 Chronicles 20:24-26 ESV

The word “Beracah” means blessing. From Judah’s perspective, this valley became a reminder of God’s grace, mercy and blessing. But the valley was a place of judgment for the enemies of Judah. Interestingly enough, the name “Jehoshaphat” means “God has judged.” So, the valley in which God brought about a victory over the enemies of Judah, became a place of both blessing and judgment.

This same scene is going to occur on the coming day of the Lord. God will once again judge and destroy Judah’s enemies, while at the same time blessing His chosen people.
And God addressed the Phoenicians and the Philistines, singling them out for their treatment of His people. But these two nations seem to be used as stand-ins for all the other nation of all time who have mistreated the people of God. And He warns that He is going to reward the people of Judah and Israel, but pay back their enemies for all that they have done.

As God promised the people of Judah in Jehoshaphat’s day, He will be with the people of Israel in that future day. “You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 20:17 ESV). God will bless, and God will judge. And His people have no reason to fear.

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

 

I Will Restore

18 Then the Lord became jealous for his land
    and had pity on his people.
19 The Lord answered and said to his people,
“Behold, I am sending to you
    grain, wine, and oil,
    and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
    a reproach among the nations.

20 “I will remove the northerner far from you,
    and drive him into a parched and desolate land,
his vanguard into the eastern sea,
    and his rear guard into the western sea;
the stench and foul smell of him will rise,
    for he has done great things.

21 “Fear not, O land;
    be glad and rejoice,
    for the Lord has done great things!
22 Fear not, you beasts of the field,
    for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit;
    the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

23 “Be glad, O children of Zion,
    and rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given the early rain for your vindication;
    he has poured down for you abundant rain,
    the early and the latter rain, as before.

24 “The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
25 I will restore to you the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.

26 “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.” Joel 2:18-27 ESV

In these verses. Joel communicates a much-needed message of hope to the people of Judah. It begins with the word, “Then….” Joel appears to be writing from a vantage point where he looking back and recollecting the response of God to the solemn assembly of the peoples, their mourning and fasting, and their cries of sorrow for their sin. But it could also be true, that Joel is speaking of future events, recording what God will do if and when the people truly repent. The problem of interpreting the first two verses of this section hangs on the Hebrew perfect verbs used by Joel. They can be translated into English as either past or future verbs. So, it is somewhat difficult to determine exactly which perspective Joel is writing from. But the context and the content of the chapter provide us with insight into the timing of God’s message.

God had already brought devastation to the land via the locust plague. He has warned the people of Judah that a great army is coming from the north that will make the destruction of the locusts pale in comparison. And He has called the people to turn to Him in repentance. Now, God assures them that, if they return to Him with all their heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and if they rend their hearts and not their garments (Joel 2:12), He will show them pity. Why? Because “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:14 ESV).

And God tells them exactly what He is going to do, if and when they do repent.

“Behold, I am sending to you
    grain, wine, and oil,
    and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
    a reproach among the nations. – Joel 2:18 ESV

There appear to be two different aspects to God’s promise. The first has to do with the damage done by the locusts. This entire section is full of references to horticulture. God mentions grain, wine, oil, pastures, fields, trees, and vines. He refers to threshing floors full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil. It is a picture of abundance and blessing that stand in stark contrast to the conditions described in chapter 1. There, Joel painted a much bleaker image depicting barren vines, stripped fig trees, dried up fields, and fruitless harvests.

Chapter one describes the justified consequences of the peoples’ rebellion against God. Chapter two, verses 18-27 describe the mercy and grace of God in response to true, heartfelt repentance. God had brought His divine judgment upon the people of Judah, and He had warned that more was to come – if they refused to repent. But here He is telling them what the fruit of repentance looks like.

“The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. – Joel 2:24 ESV

God is assuring them He has the capacity to restore all that had been destroyed.

“I will restore to you the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.” – Joel 2:25 ESV

The key to their restoration was their repentance. All that prevented them from enjoying the manifold blessings of God was their willingness to return to Him in humility and contrition. He wasn’t looking for some kind of mock sorrow or insincere statement of remorse or regret. God wanted true repentance, marked by a rejection of their formal lifestyle of sin and a child-like submission to the will and ways of God. Hundreds of years earlier, God had told them exactly what they were to do if He  “shut up the heavens so that no rain falls, or command grasshoppers to devour your crops, or send plagues among you” (2 Chronicles 7:13 ESV).

Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV

But notice the phrase, “seek my face.” The Hebrew word baqash carries the idea of desire. It conveys a sense of longing and a willingness to continue seeking until you find what it is you desire. It was God’s desire that they desire Him more than anything else. More than their overflowing vats of wine, fields full of ripe grain, fine clothes, comfortable homes, and yes, false gods.

God had communicated a similar message to the people of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the LORD. – Jeremiah 29:11-14 NLT

Again, don’t miss the conditional nature of God’s promise. “If you look for me wholeheartedly” or with all your heart. God wasn’t interested in a form of repentance that looked more like regret and a veiled attempt to escape His discipline. He wanted them to want Him more than they wanted relief from judgment. He wanted them to desire Him more than they desired His blessings. Their wholehearted seeking was to be for Him, not for what they could get from Him.

But there is a second part to God’s promise. Not only will He restore their land to fruitfulness. He promises that He will “remove the northerner far from you, and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguard into the eastern sea, and his rear guard into the western sea” (Joel 2:20 ESV). In other words, their repentance will result in the removal of the threat of foreign invasion. Remember, God had told them that “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13 ESV). He has the power to do whatever He chooses to do. But His relenting was directly tied to their repenting.

All of this had to have sounded like great news to the people of Judah. And it got even better. God promised them great days ahead.

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.” – Joel 2:26-27 ESV

Two times God promises that they will never again be put to shame. The pain, suffering, humiliation, and feelings of having been abandoned by Him will never be felt again. But has this promise been fulfilled? Even a cursory glance at the history of Israel reveals that they have a long association with shame. The army from the north did eventually show up and destroy their capital, demolish the temple, and take their people captive. And over the centuries, the Jewish people have experienced their share of shame, humiliation, sorrow, and subjugation at the hands of foreign enemies.

But God promises them that He has plans for them. And as Jeremiah recorded,  “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope…” (Jeremiah 29:11 NLT). God was offering them restoration and rejuvenation – if they would repent. But He also promised future redemption, even if they didn’t. God knew His people well. And He was fully aware that true repentance on their part was not going to happen. Therefore, His judgment would come. The Babylonians would show up, the kingdom would fall, and the people would be taken captive.

God had warned them to repent, but they won’t. But He had promised to restore, and He will. And, as we will see, God promise of restoration will include more than just the people of Judah, because He says,  “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…” (Joel 2:28 ESV).

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 Lord is Faithful

1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

To Paul, the Christian life was anything but independent. He constantly stressed the vital interrelationship between believers within a local fellowship, and between different congregations that found themselves separated by distance and cultural differences. A good example of this is the fund Paul raised from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Achaia to minister to the needs of the financially strapped and predominantly Jewish congregation in Jerusalem.

…the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. – Romans 15:26-27 NLT

This cooperative concern for one another was encouraged continuously by Paul. He knew the strength of the body of Christ was founded on God’s grace-filled love for each believer and demonstrated through selfless, sacrificial love for one another. Even the believer’s ability to love comes from God, as the apostle John makes clear.

We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 NLT

And one of the highest expressions of the mutual love believers are to share with one another comes in the form of prayer. Paul prayed faithfully for each of the churches he had helped to found, and he coveted their prayers for him. He fully believed in and relied upon the power of prayer, and took to heart the words of James.

The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. – James 5:16 NLT

And Paul was not embarrassed to ask the Thessalonians to pray for him. But notice the nature of his request. It’s not personal or self-focused. He doesn’t ask them to pray for his healing from a sickness or for deliverance from a difficult situation.  No, Paul is very specific, asking for prayer “that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 ESV). You might conclude that this is a personal prayer because Paul seems to be asking that God bless his work, but his real focus is on the spread of the gospel. Paul wasn’t in it for the glory. He wasn’t interested in how many converts he had made or whether he was getting all the credit.

At one point, while in prison in Rome, Paul had received news that there were others preaching the gospel out of jealousy and rivalry.  They were taking advantage of his situation and stepping into the gap his absence had created. And Paul was fully aware that some of these preachers had impure motives, stating, “They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me” (Philippians 1:17 NLT). Yet Paul was able to respond, “But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice” (Philippians 1:18 NLT).

Paul didn’t care who got the credit. But he did care that the gospel message was preached. And he wanted the Thessalonians to join him in prayer with that goal in mind. And knowing that the gospel was going to encounter opposition, Paul asked that they prayer for their protection.

Pray, too, that we will be rescued from wicked and evil people, for not everyone is a believer. – 2 Thessalonians 3:2 NLT

Again, this request has a personal element to it, but Paul’s primary concern is about the spread of the gospel and the spiritual battle that raged against it. As the Thessalonians well knew, the good news of Jesus Christ was not always met with open arms. They had experienced first-hand the kind of animosity the gospel could engender.

But almost as if saying, “enough about me,” Paul suddenly turns his attention to the Thessalonians, declaring to them, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV). This statement exudes Paul’s confidence in God, and it reflects his understanding that the believer’s dependence must ultimately be in God. He is the faithful one. He is the one who strengthens, guards, guides, and protects. Paul is not diminishing the need for or power of their prayers. He is emphasizing the undeniable nature of God’s role in the believer’s spiritual well-being.

And don’t miss what Paul says next: “we have confidence in the Lord about you” (2 Thessalonians 3:4 ESV). Notice that he doesn’t say, “We have confidence in you.” He wasn’t telling them, “You’ve got this!” He wasn’t inferring that they had their spiritual act together and were handling their walk of faith well. No, Paul’s confidence was in the faithfulness of God. And he knew that God was the one who behind the past, present, and future obedience of the Thessalonians. Any spiritual success they had enjoyed had been God’s doing, not their own.

Which brings us back to the topic of dependence. The Thessalonian church and every individual who belonged to it was totally reliant upon God for their salvation, sanctification, and ultimate glorification. Their placement within the body of Christ had been the work of God. And it would be God who kept them there, all the way to the end. Which is exactly what Paul had written to the believers in Philippi.

He who began a good work in you will continue to perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. – Philippians 1:6 BSB

And Paul shared the same comforting words with the believers in Corinth.

He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. – 1 Corinthians 1:8 NLT

Their future was in God’s fully capable hands. He had called them, and He would sustain them. He had chosen them, and He would keep them – all the way to the end. And knowing that to be true, Paul prays on their behalf: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5 ESV). This isn’t a request for God to do something He doesn’t want or intend to do. Paul is praying that God’s will be done on behalf of the Thessalonians. Paul’s inclusion of this prayer in his letter to them was intended to remind them that their hearts remain focused on God’s remarkable love for them. He was not going to abandon them. As Paul had told the believers in Rome, “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 NLT).

They needed to keep their hearts and minds firmly focused on God’s unwavering and unstoppable love for them. And, they needed to use the endurance of Jesus as motivation to remain faithful to the end. Jesus was loved by God, but He had to suffer to fulfill the will of God. God had chosen Him to serve as a ransom for many. The Father sent His Son to die on behalf of sinful mankind. And the suffering Jesus endured in His earthly life was not a sign that God had fallen out of love with Him. It was actually evidence of their love for one another, and proof of God’s love for us.

But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8 BSB

And Paul challenges the Thessalonians to focus on the steadfastness, the endurance that Jesus modeled in His earthly life. He remained dedicated and determined to fulfill the will of God – all the way to the end.

…he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:7 NLT

So, Paul wanted the Thessalonians to use Jesus as their model for endurance. Which is exactly what the author of Hebrews would have them do.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:2-3 BSB

And God makes it all possible. He provides us with the strength we need to model the perseverance and faithfulness of Jesus. And it is His incredible love for us that should motivate us to do as Jesus did.

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).

Saved By God

13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 ESV

There’s a lot packed into these five short verses, and it’s easy to miss the significance of their content. In them, Paul addresses everything from the doctrines of election, sanctification, and glorification to the roles of the Spirit and the individual in the process of spiritual maturity. This is not light reading. And the reason Paul drops this theologically rich content on his readers is, so they will recognize that despite rumors to the contrary, the day of the Lord has not come and gone. In fact, he wants them to know that God has ordained great things for them to do before that end times event.

As Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10 NLT). And Paul informed the Ephesian church that their status as God’s chosen people had been planned by God long before they were even born.

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. – Ephesians 1:4 NLT

This appears to be the very same message Paul is trying to convey to the Thessalonians, when he writes, “God chose you to be among the first to experience salvation” (2 Thessalonians 2:13 NLT). The believers to whom he wrote had been among the first converts to Christianity In Thessalonica, and Paul wants them to understand that their salvation had been God’s doing, not their own. Paul expresses his recognition of God’s undeniable role in their salvation by thanking Him. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had played no part in their own salvation. Neither had the believers in Ephesus, and neither had he.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

Why is this important and why does Paul bring it up at this point in his letter? Because the Thessalonians were confused over news that the day of the Lord had come and the Rapture of the church had not yet taken place. They thought they were living in the period of Tribulation and were anxiously hoping for the second coming of Jesus. But Paul wanted them to understand that the entire process of salvation was the work of God. From their initial choosing and calling by God to their sanctification and ultimate glorification, it was all God’s doing. There was no excuse for fear or doubt. They had no reason to question what God was doing or whether they had somehow missed out on God’s plan.

And Paul reminds them that their salvation had been “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV). They had been set apart or consecrated by God through the indwelling presence of His Spirit. 

…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. – Titus 3:5 ESV

According to Paul, it was the Spirit of God who gave them the ability to hear the truth concerning Jesus Christ and believe. This regenerating power of the Spirit is what makes it possible for those whose eyes have been blinded by Satan to see the glorious light of the good news.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

Even their ability to believe the the truth of the gospel came from God. All Paul had done was communicate that gospel message to them, but it was God who gave them the capacity to believe it. And God’s call of them was so that they might “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 4:14 ESV). This glory not only refers to their future glorification, when God will complete the process of their sanctification and provide them with new, glorified bodies; it includes their current condition as common, everyday vessels in which the glory of God resides.

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 NLT

They already had the glory of God resident within them, and it was to increase in intensity with each passing day.

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 BSB

All of this was meant to be a wake-up call, intended to stir the Thessalonians out of their debilitating fear and confusion and to get them back to living their lives with intentionality. Which is why Paul told them, “With all these things in mind, dear brothers and sisters, stand firm and keep a strong grip on the teaching we passed on to you both in person and by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15 NLT).

These verses didn’t contain new information but were a reiteration of the teaching Paul had already passed on to them – in person and by letter. This was a well-timed reminder to hold their ground and to keep believing in the truth regarding their salvation. It was the work of God, and He was far from finished. The persecution they suffered was proof of their calling, not evidence against it.

Jesus had warned His disciples that things were going to get worse before they got better.

And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come. – Matthew 24:6-8 NLT

But notice what Jesus told the, “don’t panic.” God has a plan. And His people do not need to fear His coming wrath. They no longer have to fear His judgment. In fact, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul had told them “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10 ESV). And he went on to remind them that, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV). They had no reason to fear. They had no cause to faint or grow weary. God held them in His highly capable hands. And Paul closes this section by praying that God would help them focus on the eternal comfort and good hope He had in store for them.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal comfort and a wonderful hope, comfort you and strengthen you in every good thing you do and say. – 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 NLT

They had work to do, prepared for them by God Himself. And God had given them His Spirit to provide them with the strength they needed to live in keeping with their calling. They had been chosen, called, set apart, and filled with the glory of God. Now, they needed to live like it.

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).