Never Give Up On Growing Up

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

25 Brothers, pray for us.

26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.

27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 ESV

Like Peter and the other apostles, Paul had a strong expectation that the believers to whom he wrote would grow up in their salvation (1 Peter 2:2). Spiritual immaturity or stagnancy in their faith was unacceptable. He told the believers in Colossae that his preaching of Christ was intended to bring about salvation and sanctification.

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. – Colossians 1:28 ESV

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he told them that his responsibility as an apostle was to “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And then he added that this work of building up the body of Christ had a lofty end goal or objective:

This will continue 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

The work would never be done. Full spiritual maturity would never be achieved – at least, not in this lifetime. And Paul expressed to the Galatians his intention to keep pouring into them until they bore the likeness of Christ.

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. – Galatians 4:19 NLT

You might say that Paul was a man possessed. He could not bear the thought of any believer failing to experience the fulness of salvation offered to them in Jesus Christ. And this included their sanctification, the divine process by which believers are transformed into the likeness of Christ through the power of God’s indwelling Spirit.

So, as he begins to wrap up his letter to the believers in Thessalonica, Paul let’s them know of his desire for their holiness. It was his life’s passion and his constant prayer to God on their behalf.

Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy… – 1 Thessalonians 5:23 NET

Paul knew that spiritual maturity was the work of God, not men. That does not mean we do not play a part, but that the work of sanctification is impossible without divine assistance. Paul has already told the Thessalonians that their sanctification was God’s will for them (1 Thessalonians 4:3), but now he reminds them that it is also God’s work. Only God can transform sinners into saints. Only He can replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).  Only He can radically alter their old natures, transforming them into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).

That is why Paul was constantly asking God to do what only He could do to bring about the spiritual maturity of His children.

I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. – Ephesians 1:16-18 NLT

Only God has the power to save and sanctify. And only God is capable of securing the spirits, souls, and bodies of His saints, so that they might remain “blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 NLT). By his use of the word “blameless,” Paul is not suggesting the possibility of achieving a state of sinless perfection in this life. He is simply reiterating a point he had made earlier in his letter. Their ability to one day stand before God “without fault” or “free from blame” would be the work of God.

May he…make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. – 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT

The ability to maintain a life marked by righteousness and holiness is a gift from God, just as salvation is. No one can save themselves and no one can preserve their saved state through self-effort. It is the work of God. And Paul assures the Thessalonians that God can be trusted to do what only He can do.

God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful. – 1 Thessalonians 5:24 NLT

God could be counted on to do His part. But they had a role to play as well. Paul has made that point perfectly clear throughout his letter. They would need to maintain their commitment to “serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV). They must continue to “walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12 ESV). He expected to hear that they were “standing fast in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 ESV). And they could not afford to let up on their commitment to “live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans” (1 Thessalonians 4:4 ESV).

Their sanctification was a joint effort, powered by God, but requiring their willing and eager participation. If God’s will was their sanctification, they were going to have to adopt His will as their very own. It was essential that they make Christlikeness their primary passion and lifelong objective. And there was to be no goal less than full maturity in Christ. This meant that their sanctification would not be complete until they died and went to be with the Lord, or they lived long enough to see Him return at the Rapture for His church. Either way, the commitment to spiritual maturity and their ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ was to remain their highest priority.

The apostle Peter reminds us that, because of our faith in Christ, we have been given all that we need to live godly lives. We lack nothing.

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. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. – 1 Peter 1:3-4 NLT

And the apostle John provides us with further assurance of our completed transformation into the likeness of Christ.

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

Paul closes his letter with a request. He asks the Thessalonians for their prayers of intercession on the behalf of himself and the rest of his ministry partners. The work of sharing the Gospel required divine assistance. Paul coveted their prayer because he knew that he was in the midst of a spiritual battle “against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).

Finally, Paul asks that they express his love to all the members of the congregation and to make sure that his letter is read to everyone. And then he closes with a final blessing, asking that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon them. For Paul, the unmerited favor of God was a truly remarkable gift that never ceased to amaze and delight him. It was the key to salvation, sanctification and, ultimately, the glorification of all believers.

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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More and More Part 2

9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV

It’s interesting to note how, in this passage, Paul contrasts love and lust. In verses 1-8, he points out the need for the Thessalonian believers to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). They were to refrain from practicing sexual sin or, as the word means in Greek, “to hold one’s self off.” As believers, they had been given a new capacity to refrain from their old desires, driven by their sinful natures. Upon placing their faith in Christ, they had received the presence and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And, as a result, they were able to say no to lustful desires.

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. – Galatians 5:17 NLT

The sinful nature lusts or desires the wrong things. And Paul pointed out to the Galatian believers that those who allowed their lives to be driven by the desires of their old nature, rather than the Spirit, would produce ungodly fruit in their lives. And the first three he mentions are tied to sexual sin.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

And Paul has warned the Thessalonian church: “each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5 ESV). John Piper defines lust as “a sexual desire that dishonors its object and disregards God” (John Piper, Battling the Unbelief of Lust, http://www.desiringgod.org). And he expands on that definition by adding:

“Sexual desire in itself is good. God made it in the beginning. It has its proper place. But it was made to be governed or regulated or guided by two concerns: honor toward the other person and holiness toward God. Lust is what that sexual desire becomes when that honor and that holiness are missing from it.” – John Piper, Battling the Unbelief of Lust, http://www.desiringgod.org

Paul wanted the Thessalonians to understand that they had a new obligation to live their lives in such a way that everything they did brought glory and honor to God. With the Spirit’s help, they were to learn to control their bodies, not allowing their natural, God-given desires to become perverted or distorted by sin. Sexual desire is not a sin, but it is actually a gift from God. But like everything else in life since the fall, this godly gift can be stained by the presence of sin. Rather than being an expression of self-sacrificing love for another, it turns in on itself, demanding that someone satisfy our selfish desires for sexual pleasure. God gets left out of the picture. And love gets replaced by lust. That is why Paul points out that their lives were to be marked by holiness, not impurity.

For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 ESV

And this was not a message Paul reserved for the Thessalonians. He shared the same warning to the believers in Rome.

Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. – Romans 6:12-13 NLT

Lust versus love. One dishonors the other person by using them for purely selfish reasons. And, in the end, this disobeys and dishonors God. But when we truly love as God has called us to love, sacrificially and selflessly, the other person is treated with value, dignity, and honor. And God receives glory.

A Christian marriage is to be a proving ground of the Spirit’s life-transforming power, where the selfless, sacrificial love of Christ is modeled in everyday life. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NLT). Then he provided them with specific application of what that mutual submission would look life in the marriage context.

For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands in everything.

For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. – Ephesians 5:22-26 NLT

While we find it easy to get hung up on Paul’s call for the wives to submit, it is essential to understand that he is calling both the husband and the wife to practice selfless submission – out of reverence to Christ. And earlier in the same chapter, Paul provided a call for the Ephesians to imitate God and to follow the example of Christ.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

And then he added a what-not-to-do element to his instructions.

Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. – Ephesians 5:3 NLT

Love, not lust. That is the call placed on the believer by God Himself, and the kind of love God had in mind was modeled by Christ. And this selfless love was not just reserved for marriage. It was to be displayed in all their relationships. God has called His children to love others in the same way He has shown love to them.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

And He expects them to follow the example of Christ.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. – 1 John 3:16 NLT

And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they don’t require any more instructions regarding the kind of love God has in mind “for God himself has taught you to love one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:9 NLT). And the apostle John lets us know just how God had taught them.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. – 1 John 4:9-11 NLT

Paul compliments the Thessalonian church for having displayed the very kind of love he was writing about. They had already given evidence of their selflessness and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of others. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul bragged on the tangible expressions of love displayed by the Macedonian churches, including the fellowship in Thessalonica.

Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in his kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia. They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity.

For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. – 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NLT

But Paul didn’t want them to rest on their laurels. In fact, he begged them “to do this more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:10 ESV). They were to keep loving. They were to stop lusting. And then Paul adds three characteristics or marks of a life lived in love.

  1. Their lives would exhibit peace and calm, rather than strife and turmoil. Paul told the Romans, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18 NLT). Peaceful lives create an atmosphere in which others feel safe and secure. And that is an expression of love.
  2. They were to tend to their own affairs, refusing to meddle in the concerns of others. This is not a call to disregard the needs or life circumstances of others, but it is simply an extension of Jesus’ admonition to “get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye” (Matthew 7:5 NLT).
  3. They were to be diligent workers, using whatever skills they had to provide for themselves, and refusing to become a burden to others. There was no place for laziness or a spirit of entitlement in their lives.

And Paul had a purpose behind his call for selfless, sacrificial living.

Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. – 1 Thessalonians 4:12 NLT

At the end of the day, Paul was interested in seeing the Thessalonian believers live out their faith in tangible ways that exhibited the power of the Spirit and gave proof of their status as God’s children.

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

Faith and Love

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you— for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ESV

At some point, Timothy left Thessalonica and rejoined Paul in Corinth. Upon his arrival, he had shared with the apostle some encouraging news regarding the spiritual and emotional state of the Thessalonian believers.  And upon hearing of their “faith and love,” Paul was indeed encouraged, referring to his report as “good news”(euaggelizo).

Normally, Paul used this Greek word only when referring to the Gospel message – the good news concerning Jesus Christ. In fact, this is the only place in the entire New Testament where it is not used in that way. But for Paul, news of the steadfast faith and love of the Thessalonians was directly linked to the life-transforming power of the Gospel. Their persevering faith was evidence of God’s power, made possible by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. In his first epistle, the apostle Peter reminded his readers that, because of “God’s power,” they were “being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5 ESV). God was preserving them through faith, and guaranteeing their future inheritance of eternal life. This comforting fact prompted Peter to exhort the believers to whom he wrote.

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

And Paul knew that the capacity of the Thessalonian believers to express love was proof that they had experienced the love of God. The apostle John clarified that those who truly loved others were exhibiting the life-changing love that God had graciously shown them.

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

Faith and love were on display in Thessalonica and Paul could not have been more pleased. He was also encouraged by Timothy’s report that the Thessalonian believers maintained a strong love for Paul and Silas, manifesting itself in a desire to be reunited with them.

He reports that you always remember our visit with joy and that you want to see us as much as we want to see you. – 1 Thessalonians 3:6 NLT

Paul didn’t always receive a warm welcome in the many cities he visited. He knew what it was like to face rejection and had even endured physical abuse at the hands of those with whom he had shared the Gospel. So, it was comforting and encouraging to hear that the Thessalonian believers had not lost their affection for him. This was particularly meaningful to Paul when he knew that there were those who were constantly trying to undermine his authority and diminish his influence. To hear that the believers in Thessalonica had not turned their backs on him or the Gospel he had preached was especially encouraging to Paul. And Paul let them know that news of their persevering faith had brought him comfort in the midst of his own personal circumstances.

So we have been greatly encouraged in the midst of our troubles and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, because you have remained strong in your faith. – 1 Thessalonians 3:7 NLT

He had found the content of Timothy’s report to be spiritual rejuvenating.

It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord. – 1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT

Paul was a man of prayer and, while physically separated from the believers in Thessalonica, he had been interceding for them before the throne of God.

Night and day we pray earnestly for you… – 1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT

And they were in good company because Paul made it a habit to pray for all the churches he had helped to plant. He told the church in Ephesus:

I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly… – Ephesians 1:16 NLT

He informed the Colossian church:

So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. – Colossians 1:9 NLT

And he wrote to the believers in Rome, letting them know that they were on his heart and in his prayers.

Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. – Romans 1:8 NLT

And Paul told the Thessalonians that his prayers for them were filled with expressions of thanksgiving to God. He was able to enter into God’s presence with gratitude and with great joy because he knew that his spiritual children in Thessalonica were thriving, even in the midst of difficulty. But along with prayers of thanksgiving to God for all that He was doing among them, Paul was also “asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT).

Paul was the consummate pastor/shepherd. He loved to see people come to faith in Christ, but he also found great joy in helping them grow up in their faith. He was an evangelist and a spiritual mentor. He shared Peter’s passion to see new believers move from spiritual infancy to maturity.

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation… – 1 Peter 2:2 NLT

Paul told the believers in Ephesus, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). And so, Paul made the spiritual growth of the various flocks he had helped to found a high priority in his prayer life. When he couldn’t physically be present among them, he made sure he was regularly interceding on behalf of them.

And along with his prayer for permission to return to Thessalonica, Paul asked God to increase their capacity to love others.

…may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. – 1 Thessalonians 3:12 NLT

And this love was not to be myopic, focused solely on the members of their congregation. It was to flow outside the fellowship and into the streets of Thessalonica, so their lost friends, family members, and neighbors could also experience the love of God. Paul was simply asking God to empower them to do what Jesus had expressed in His sermon on the mount.

“…love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:44-48 NLT

Anyone can love those who love them in return. But the love of God was best expressed in the gracious gift of His Son. It was while we were still mired in our sins and incapable of expressing love to Him, that God loved us. And no one describes the love of God better than the apostle John.

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. – 1 John 4:9-12 NLT

Faith and love. Paul knew these two things were the key to their ongoing spiritual health and vitality. And both come from God. They are not self-manufactured or the by-products of human will power. That is why Paul reminded the Thessalonians that one of his ongoing prayers for them was that God would continue to increase their love and strengthen their faith. And his request had an eternal focus. He was thinking long-term, not short-term.

May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen. – 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT

Paul was a man on a mission and that mission had a goal. There was a finish line at the end of the face. There was a prize at the end of the contest. And while there might be obstacles and difficulties along the way, there is a reward waiting for all those who run the race with endurance.

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

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

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 Greater Joy

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. – 3 John 1:1-4 ESV

Of the three letters that John penned, this one appears to be the most personal in nature. It is addressed to someone called Gaius, an individual for whom John held strong affection. He refers to him as “beloved” Gaius. The Greek word John used is agapētos and it means “well-loved.” We know nothing about the relationship between these two men, but Gaius was obviously someone whom John loved dearly.

During the 1st-Century, Gaius was a common Greek name, and there are a number of men mentioned in the New Testament who share that appellation. But we have no way of knowing who this particular individual was or the nature of his relationship to John. It is likely that he lived somewhere in Asia Minor and had a connection to the local congregation to whom John wrote in his second letter.

In his salutation to Gaius, John utilizes the same wording he used in his second letter to address “the elect lady and her children.” He describes Gaius as someone “whom I love in truth” (3 John 1:1 ESV). Four times in four verses, John will bring up the topic of truth, something he addressed in his second letter as well. John is not simply saying, “I love you, and that’s the truth!” He is making a theological statement. In his second letter, he qualified his greeting to the local congregation to whom he wrote by adding, “because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 1:1 ESV).

It was God’s love for sinful humanity, as displayed in the gracious gift of His Son, that made it possible for John to love others. He was able to love because God had first loved him (1 John 4:19). God had showered John with His unconditional love and poured out His Spirit upon him, providing him with the capacity to share that love with others. And John’s love for Gaius went well beyond mere brotherly love. It was the love of one redeemed and forgiven sinner for another. They shared a common faith in Jesus Christ and had been adopted into the same family by God the Father. Paul describes this unique, shared relationship this way:

…you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. – Romans 8:15-17 NLT

So, John wanted Gaius to know that their mutual love for one another was based on the truth of God’s love for them. God had loved them enough to send His Son to die for them. And John’s love for Gaius extended to his desire that his brother and friend experience health and wholeness, both physically and spiritually.

I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul – 3 John 1:2 ESV

For John, spiritual well-being superseded physical health and prosperity. He knew that growth in godliness was not a guarantee of physical comfort and ease. A life of Christlikeness was sometimes accompanied by pain and suffering. John had heard Jesus Himself declare the reality of hardship for those who place their faith in Christ.

Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world. – John 16:33 NLT

And he was probably familiar with the words of Paul and Barnabas, spoken to the saints in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia. As these two men had traveled through these regions, visiting the local church, “they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 NLT).

John knew that suffering and sorrow were a common feature of the walk of faith. But he let Gaius know that he was praying for his health. He had no wish to see his friend suffer hardship. So, he made it a habit to ask God to protect and prosper Gaius physically and spiritually.

But John was especially grateful to hear of Gaius’ spiritual growth. He had rejoiced greatly upon receiving news that Gaius was “walking in the truth” (3 John 1:3 ESV). This young man’s life was marked by a commitment to the truth of the Gospel. It permeated every area of his life. His faith in Christ, marked by his belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, was all-encompassing. His behavior was consistent with his professed belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ.

And John let Gaius know just how much this pleased him.

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. – 3 John 1:4 ESV

Paul expressed a similar sentiment to the believers in Philippi:

…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:2-4 ESV

Gaius was living out his faith in tangible ways that others could see. His belief in Christ was radically altering his behavior. And this brought great joy to his friend and shepherd. As an apostle of Jesus Christ and an elder who had oversight for the body of Christ, John found great satisfaction when he witnessed believers living out their faith in daily life. He expressed this sentiment to the local congregation to whom he wrote his second letter.

How happy I was to meet some of your children and find them living according to the truth, just as the Father commanded. – 2 John 1:4 NLT

While John could not guarantee Gaius a life free from trouble and marked by physical health and prosperity, he could encourage his friend to continue in the faith, allowing the truth of the Gospel to saturate and sanctify his every thought and deed.

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

Living Water

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:10-14 ESV

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. – John 7:37-39 ESV

What is the key to living the Christian life? That’s an age-old question that has garnered a wide range of answers over the centuries. Even within the 1st-Century in which Jesus lived and died, the early church found itself debating and disagreeing over this question, even though the disciples of Jesus had been given the answer and had experienced evidence of its veracity at Pentecost.

Just minutes before His ascension into heaven, Jesus had told His disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV).

After hearing this somewhat cryptic promise from the lips of Jesus, the disciples had watched Him ascend into heaven, and then they returned to Jerusalem where they waited for the proof of Jesus’ promise. And they didn’t have to wait long.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:1-4 ESV

Luke goes on to record the incredible results of that filling. Yes, they spoke in languages they didn’t know but, more importantly, they spoke with a power and boldness they hadn’t formerly possessed. Peter, the one who had distinguished himself by denying he  even knew Jesus, now found himself fearlessly proclaiming the truth of the gospel to anyone who would listen. He spoke with a clarity and boldness that, no doubt, surprised him and shocked his fellow disciples. And it was all in keeping with the promise Jesus had made to them. He had told them that, when the time came and they found themselves standing in the synagogues and before rulers and authorities, “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said” (Luke 12:12 NLT).

And Jesus had made it clear that their words would not be their own.

“For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” – Matthew 10:20 NLT

Again, Luke points out that the disciples were able to speak in languages they didn’t know because “the Holy Spirit gave them this ability” (Acts 2:4 NLT).

And just a few days later, Peter and John found themselves under arrest and standing before “the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law” (Acts 4:5 NLT). The Jewish high priest had these two men dragged before him and questioned them: “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?” (Acts 4:7 NLT). And Luke records, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” (Acts 4:8 NLT).

As the book of Acts unfolds, we are provided with repeated proof of the Spirit’s presence and power in the lives of the disciples. The disciples, and all those who were coming to faith in Jesus, were displaying evidence of Jesus’ words: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38 ESV).

They were exhibiting never-before-seen evidence of the powerful transformation that had taken place when the Spirit had taken up residence within them. These men and women had been radically changed. They were not who they had been before. And the Spirit’s impact on their lives was, as Jesus had described it, like “living water.” It was zaō, a Greek word that means “alive.” This was not stagnant, standing water, like that found in a roadside ditch or a man-made cistern. It was living, vibrant, life-giving water that flowed freely and abundantly. And, as Jesus had promised, it flowed “out” of the heart, refreshing all those with whom it came into contact.

The Spirit’s presence within the disciples was not just life-transformative for them, but for all those around them. Others were impacted by the Spirit’s presence within them. Like a spring flowing from a hidden source, the Spirit poured out of the disciples and nourished the lives of others. The power of God, in the form of the indwelling Spirit of God, flowed from the followers of Christ and impacted the world in which they lived.

As Jesus had told the crowds who gathered to hear His sermon on the mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6 BSB). The disciples had been filled to overflowing, and now the power of the Spirit within them was spilling out and refreshing all those around them. It’s interesting to note that Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are not inwardly-focused qualities. They are not intended to bless the one from whom they flow. No, they are meant to flow out and touch the lives of others. Self-love is not a fruit of the Spirit. Joy that focuses on one’s own happiness is not the fruit of the Spirit. The presence of peace in the absence of others is not peace at all, it’s selfish isolation and, most certainly, not the fruit of the Spirit. The kind of patience that fades away as soon as others show up is fake fruit.

Take a look at all the fruit mentioned by Paul. They are intended for the good of others. Which brings us back to our original question: What is the key to living the Christian life? Obviously, it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit. He is the power source. He is tfountain from which the living water flows. And He exists in us in order that He might flow out from us.

When we think about living the Christian life, we tend to place all the emphasis on us. In other words, we focus on what we can get out of it. But God would have us consider what He desires to flow from us. The Christian life is not intended to be me-focused. It is not supposed to be some myopic, me-centered quest for personal gain, comfort, and satisfaction. The abundant life Jesus promised was not a guarantee of our best life now. No, it was the promise of thirst-quenching, life-giving, power flowing from within us and pouring out from us to all those around us.

Over in the book of Isaiah, there is a powerful invitation extended from the lips of God.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” – Isaiah 55:1 ESV

He invites the thirsty to come to Him and find refreshment. Earlier in the same book, God had promised His wayward people that salvation was available to them, if they would only come to Him in repentance. If and when they did, He promised them, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3 ESV). The could find living water, but they had to come to the source.

And the amazing thing is that God has chosen to place that living water inside each and every one of His children. We have the Spirit, the water of life, living within us. And God intends for that life-giving water to flow from us to all those around us – to believers and non-believers alike. What’s the key to living the Christian life? The Spirit of God. But a better question might be: What’s the purpose of the Christian life? And the answer would be found in the words of Jesus.

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” – John 7:38 ESV

Our very existence as followers of Christ is so that the same life-giving power that filled us and quenched our spiritual thirst, will flow from us and bring refreshment to the lives of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. And it shows up in the form of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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

 

God’s Will: Your Holiness

1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV

The chapter and verse designations found in our English translations were not In the original letter sent by Paul to the Thessalonians. So, the rather abrupt break we find between the close of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter four would not have been there. And that artificially imposed structure on the letter can cause some unnecessary confusion when trying to determine Paul’s intent and meaning.

Chapter three ends with Paul expressing his strong desire that God increase the love of Thessalonian believers for one another and for those outside their fellowship. And his prayer is that God would “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV). Paul’s concern is that they live loves marked by love and godliness. He longs to see their inner heart transformation manifest itself through external expressions that give evidence to their holiness.

And Paul carries that thought into the next paragraph. The word “finally” is translated from the Greek word loipon, which can have a wide range of meanings, depending upon the context. It could be translated, “in addition” or “moreover.” Paul is expanding on what he has just said. He’s adding to his thoughts by providing his readers with further counsel regarding the link between their status as believers in Jesus Christ and the behavior that marks their lives. Paul had previously provided them with instructions in how “to walk and to please God,” and he commends them for having done so. But he also encourages them to “do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV). They were not to grow complacent or content. This was no time to rest on their laurels or to become satisfied with the current condition of their spiritual lives. 

And it must be noted how Paul weaves together two very important aspects regarding the Christian’s spiritual maturity. At the close of chapter three, he expressed his firm belief that it was God alone who could increase the level of their love and cause it to overflow. And only God could make their hearts strong, blameless, and holy. The inner transformation of their lives was totally dependent upon divine power, not human effort. It was impossible for them to manufacture, through human means, the kind of love God demanded. There is no way that they could repair the sin-damaged condition of their own hearts through self-renovation. Man is incapable of seeing the true state of his inner life. As the prophet Jeremiah put it, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). And even if he could see how wicked his heart is, man is powerless to do anything about it. That’s the meaning behind a comment made by God regarding the people of Judah and recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

“Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” – Jeremiah 13:23 NLT

God asked two rhetorical questions that shared the same obvious answer: No. The people of God were powerless to change their behavior because they couldn’t change their hearts. Their actions were nothing more than an outer expression of their inner condition.

So, Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that it is the power of God that has transformed them and made them His children. Their newfound status as sons and daughters of God was His doing. But that didn’t mean God was finished with them. Otherwise, Paul would not have prayed for God to increase their love to make their hearts strong, blameless, and holy. They were works in process. Which is what Paul meant when he wrote to the believers in Philippi:

God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6 NLT

But Paul’s reference to God’s work in them doesn’t mean that God expects no work from them. And he makes that point perfectly clear when he states, “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). This little verse packs a punch and yet is easily overlooked or ignored by most Christians. It provides a remarkable glimpse into God’s divine will for the life of the believer, and it is all summed up in the one word, sanctification.

The Greek word Paul used is hagiasmos and, like most Greek words, it is rich in meaning. It is sometimes translated as holiness, consecration, and purification. And it can be used to signify a position (a holy nation) and a process (be holy). In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul provides them with a list that describes the unrighteous, or those outside of Christ. It includes the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers. Then Paul makes an interesting statement.  

…such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV

Notice that he lists the Corinthian believers as having been sanctified. In this case, he is referring to their having been set apart by God. In the process of their salvation, their sinful condition was cleansed by the righteous blood of Christ, making them pure and acceptable before God and able to be set apart for His use. Like the utensils used in temple worship, they had to be cleansed and purified before they could be deemed worthy of use for God. Which is what Peter meant when he wrote:

you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy [hagios] nation, God’s very own possession. – 1 Peter 2:9 NLT

Don’t miss what Peter is saying. He tells his readers that they are a holy nation. They have been chosen by God and set apart as His very own possession. They belong to Him. Which is exactly what Paul told the believers in Corinth.

You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

They had been declared holy by God and set apart for His use. Which meant that they were to honor God with the entirety of their lives. And that is the whole point behind Paul’s admonitions to the believers in Thessalonica and Corinth. Notice the similarities between his comments in the two letters.

He tells the Thessalonians, “stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways” (Thessalonians 4:3-5 NLT). And his words to the Corinthians were similar.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? – 1 Corinthians 18-19 NLT

In a sense, Paul is commanding both groups to live their lives in a manner that matches their calling. They have been set apart by God for His use, and their lives were to reflect it. They were not free to live according to their own desires anymore. They had been bought with a price and belonged to God. And it was His will that they live sanctified, set apart lives.

And, as it to make sure the don’t miss his point, Paul states, “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7 ESV). There’s that Greek word, hagiasmos again. It is the very same word that is translated as “sanctification” in verse 3. Paul is emphasizing that the believer’s calling by God is for the purpose of holiness or sanctification, not impurity.

There is a very important truth revealed in this verse that is easily overlooked and underappreciated. Paul says that God has not called us for impurity but in holiness. Those two prepositions are critical. The first one conveys a destination or activity. The second has to do with status or position. Holiness is not to be viewed as a process, but a positional reality. Holiness or sanctification is not to be viewed as a progression towards something as much as a revelation of something. We are already holy in God’s eyes. So, we are to live as what we are. We have been set apart by God in holiness. That is our new status or condition. We have been set apart by God for His will.

But there is going to be a constant war between our will and that of God. And one of the areas of life where the battle will rage the hottest is in regards to sexual sin. It was obviously a problem among the Thessalonian believers, or Paul would not have addressed it. While they enjoyed status as sanctified saints, they were going to have to live lives that gave evidence of who there were. And Paul reminds them that they had the indwelling power of the Spirit of God available to them. This was not about will power and self-effort. But it was about a willingness to make God’s will for them their highest priority. And Paul minces no words when he tells them, “this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

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

Devoted to Good Works

12 When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. 14 And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.

15 All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith.

Grace be with you all. – Titus 3:12-15 ESV

The early community of Christ was a close-knit one. Despite the fact that Paul was traveling from one end of the known world to the other, and planting churches in ethnically and geologically diverse regions, they shared a certain bond of unity. Wherever they were located, these fledgling communities of faith were in the minority and found themselves facing extreme opposition. To many Gentiles, Christians were nothing more than a sect of the Jewish religion. After all, the converts to Christianity followed the teachings of an itinerant Jewish rabbi. But to the Jews, Christians were a dangerous heresy that taught against the Mosaic Law and the rite of circumcision. So, wherever Paul and his companions took the gospel and saw its message of faith in Christ take root, they also witnessed intense antagonism.

These new congregations of believers were often ostracized and isolated from their former communities, and lacking in mature spiritual leadership, so Paul felt a strong sense of responsibility to provide them with instruction and encouragement. He wanted them to know that they were part of a much larger community of faith that was spreading around the world. Paul’s letters formed a kind of literary highway system linking these distant and disparate congregations together. His growing network of spiritual disciples included man like Timothy, Titus, Artemas, Tychicus, Zenas, and Apollos, who each played a vital role in ministering the far-flung Christian community. These men provided much-needed spiritual training to the faithful, but also served as the eyes and ears of Paul, giving him insight into what was happening within the body of Christ around the world.

Paul was constantly traveling from one place to another, fulfilling his commission to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the nations. But he tended to lave a part of his heart in every city, town, and village where the gospel found converts. In many cases, his first visit to a city was his last. His travels didn’t always allow him to circle back and check in on the churches he had helped to found. And, in time, his lengthy imprisonment in Rome would completely curtail his efforts to minister those whom he loved like his own children. But Paul never left them without adequate spiritual nourishment or oversight. And he wanted them to know that they were all in this together. They were all part of a much-larger family of faith that God was planting all around the world. And, for Paul, it was essential that each of these churches understand their role within the bigger picture. Rather than focus all their attention on their particular circumstances, they were to see themselves as members of the growing body of Christ.

Paul firmly believed that when an individual came to faith in Christ, they were to align themselves with a local faith community. They were not to act as a free agent, operating Lone-Ranger-style, independent and isolated from other Christians in their community. This corporate mentality was essential to the spiritual well-being of the individual and the community. And for Paul, it went well beyond geographic confines. He often used the metaphor of the human body as a way of illustrating the interconnected, interdependent nature of the body of Christ.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 NLT

The concept of a global church made up of people from all walks of life, every conceivable economic background, and diverse ethnic makeups was revolutionary. And this new admixture of individuals into a mutually beneficial community of faith was making a radical impact on the world. The church was growing and people were noticing. And Paul was obsessed with getting his expanding family of faith to understand their need for one another. He encouraged an attitude of generosity and selflessness, and praised the churches in Macedonia for their gracious giving toward the needs of the church in Jerusalem.

For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. – 2 Corinthians 8:3-5 NLT

Paul went on to encourage the believers in Corinth to follow the example of the Macedonian churches.

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. – 2 Corinthians 8:11 NLT

And Paul wanted the believers on Crete to have the same attitude, telling Titus , “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14 ESV).

The church is a living organism, not an organization. It is an interactive, interdependent blend of individuals into a worldwide community that is to reflect the unity of the Godhead. And the letter that Paul wrote to Titus is as applicable today as it was in the 1st-Century in which he wrote it. His call to Christ-likeness, humility, submission, service, and an unwavering commitment to the truth is vital today as it ever was. The words Paul used to open his letter still apply.

I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen and to teach them to know the truth that shows them how to live godly lives. – Titus 1:1 NLT

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 Fellowship of Faith

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11 ESV

When reading the letters of Paul it is essential to remember that, in most cases, he was writing to a community of believers, not a single individual. There are those cases where he wrote personal letters addressed to individuals, such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. But the majority of his correspondence was addressed to a corporate body of believers located in a specific city or community. This letters are usually referred to as his pastoral epistles. In them, we get a glimpse of Paul’s strong sense of calling as a shepherd over the flock of Jesus Christ.

At one point in his ministry, Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus:

“I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.” – Acts 20:19-21 NLT

He wasn’t boasting, but simply reminding these men that he had made their spiritual well-being his highest priority. Without an ounce of pride or arrogance, Paul was able to say to them:

“I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” – Acts 20:26-27 NLT

And then he challenged to follow his example.

“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.” – Acts 20:28 NLT

Paul had a deep and abiding sense of love for the church, the body of Christ. Yes, he cared for each individual Christian, but he knew that the strength of the church lie in the overall health of its constituency. While the body of Christ was made up of individual believers, God had chosen to place them within a single unit where their spiritual gifts, talents, and mutual love for one another could have the greatest impact. Paul made this point clear when writing to the church in Corinth:

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” – 1 Corinthians 12:14 NLT

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” – I Corinthians 12:27 NLT

His emphasis was always on unity and community.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” – 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 NLT

So, as we read the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we must keep in mind that he is writing to a group of people. Even their reading of his letter would have taken place in a group context. But typically, we tend to read Paul’s letters as part of our personal devotionals. And, in doing so, we make the mistake of reading the letters as if they are addressed to us as individuals. We take every personal pronoun personally. When we see the word “you,”  we assume Paul is somehow speaking to us as an individual. So, when we read, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” we apply it to ourselves. When Paul states, “I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding,” we read it as if he is addressing us individually, and by name.

But each of these personal pronouns used by Paul are plural in nature. He is addressing the body, not the individual. You could almost read them as, “you all.” So, as you make your way through this letter, imagine it is being read to you as you sit alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ from your local fellowship. Yes, his admonitions most certainly apply on an individual basis, but we miss the point of his letter if we fail to see them as messages to the corporate body of believers.

With all that in mind, look at how Paul opens his letter to the church in Philippi. He expresses his thanks to God for their very existence. He is grateful that God has allowed him to play a part in the establishment of this local fellowship. Remember, it all began with the conversion of a woman named Lydia, who came to faith in Christ after hearing the gospel from Paul and Silas. This wealthy and influential Gentile woman became a key leader in the new faith community there in Philippi, even hosting the fledgling church in her home.

Paul is grateful to God, because he realizes that the ministry he played a part in establishing was continuing without him. Paul was under house arrest in Rome and unable to visit the many churches he had helped to plant. But he was encouraged to know that the believers in Philippi were his partners in the gospel. In his absence, the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was being spread throughout the city. The Greek word that is translated as “partnership” is koinōnia, and it can also be translated as “fellowship.” Even though they were separated by many miles, Paul shared a sense of unity and mutual commitment to spreading the gospel throughout Philippi.

But while Paul was concerned about the good news of Jesus Christ be taken to every corner of Philippi, he knew that the success of that enterprise hinged on the spiritual health of the faith community to whom he wrote. Paul always maintained a balance between his desire for salvation and sanctification. He greatly desired to see people come to faith in Christ, but was equally concerned that they grow in their knowledge of and likeness to Christ. That is why he told the believers in Philippi that he was confident that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” God would finish what He started – in the church there at Philippi, but also in the lives of each individual believer.

Yet, it is essential that we see Paul’s emphasis on spiritual growth within its corporate context. Any increase in Christ-likeness we may experience is not for our own benefit. The gifts of the Spirit we have been given are not meant for us, but are intended to benefit and bless the body of Christ. Our salvation is not meant to be myopic and self-centered, but other-oriented and selfless in its focus.

When Paul states that his prayer is that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” he is speaking to the entire body of believers there in Philippi. He desires that their love for one another grow exponentially. He longs that their knowledge and discernment increase steadily. But knowledge and discernment of what? The will of God. What is excellent or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “what really matters.” And, later on in this same letter, Paul will summarize exactly what he means.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” – Philippians 4:8-9 NLT

And as their love, knowledge and discernment grows, they will become “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:1-11 ESV).

The fruit of righteousness. That’s an interesting phrase that can be easily overlooked. Paul is letting his audience know that their corporate increase in righteousness will have benefits. It will produce fruit. And if you think about it, a tree that produces fruit does so, not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others. And when Paul discusses the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the list of attributes he provides are all outwardly-focused: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

None of these things are meant to benefit the individual. Love is meant to share, not hoard. Joy is something we give away, not greedily pursue for own satisfaction. Peace is something we enjoy with others, not in isolation. Patience is impossible without the presence of others in our lives who put it to the test. All of these things are meant to be mutually shared and enjoyed as a faith community. As Paul told the believers in Corinth: “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT).

So, Paul begins his letter to the believers in Philippi by reminding them that they are in partnership with him and with one another for the cause of Christ. They were in this together. Christianity is a team sport, not an individual event. Our salvation is meant to be lived out in community, not isolation. Our sanctification is intended to be a group activity, not an individual pursuit done in secrecy and seclusion.

The fellowship of faith is powerful. The community of faith is transformational. The greatest impact any believer will have will be in proportion to his or her connection to and reliance upon the faith community into which God has placed them.

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

Acting Like Infants.

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? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. – 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 ESV

There is nothing particularly wrong with acting like a child – if you are one. But we all know how awkward it is to be around someone who refuses to act their age. Watching a grown man behave like a teenager is painful and extremely disappointing. It’s obvious to all that something is wrong with his behavior. He has refused to grow up and own up to the responsibilities that come with adulthood. And his immature actions usually end up impacting every area of his life. The same can be said for spiritual immaturity. It’s not it’s wrong. Every believer starts out as a spiritual infant in Christ. We begin the journey of faith as metaphorical newborns who require what Paul refers to as the “milk” of God’s Word. This is normal and natural. It is to be expected. It was Peter who wrote, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV). There is a time in every believer’s life when their spiritual diet must be simple and easily digestible. But as they grow, they are to move on to the “meat” of the Word. They are to grow up into salvation, learning to grasp the depth of God’s love, the significance of His grace, their complete dependence upon His strength, and the full weight of His call to holiness. The author of the book of Hebrews had some strong words to say to the recipients of is letter:

You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. – Hebrews 5:12-13 NLT

They were stuck on the basics, the elemental principles of God’s Word. They knew that Jesus was the Son of God and that He had died for their sins. They understood that they were completely dependent upon Him for salvation. They had believed that by placing their faith in Him they would be restored to a right relationship with God. But their knowledge of God’s Word had not gone beyond that point. Their grasp of all that God had done and all that He had in store for them remained limited and so their behavior remained so as well. Paul had given the Ephesian believers a goal to “be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). They were to grow in Christ-likeness, becoming increasingly more like Him in their daily conduct. And the result of this spiritual growth would be clearly evident.

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. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. – Ephesians 4:14-15 NLT

The problem with the believers in Corinth was that their behavior was revealing their spiritual immaturity. They were bickering and boasting, fighting and fuming over who was more spiritual and who had the best leader. Paul said, “there is jealousy and strife among you” and that was proof that they were “of the flesh and behaving only in a human way” (1 Corinthians 3:3 ESV). They were acting like children, arguing over things that didn’t matter and that only revealed their lack of understanding of the ways of God. They were making much of men rather than much of God. They misunderstood that these men were merely messengers, acting on behalf of God. This led Paul to ask them, “who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us” (1 Corinthians 3:5 ESV). They were nothing more than instruments in the hand of God. Any value they had came from God’s decision to use them to accomplish His will. In a subsequent letter to the Corinthians, Paul would state:

You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. 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 4:5-7 NLT

A more mature believer has a growing awareness that God is the source of all that we enjoy regarding our faith. It was He who called us, not a man. It was His Son who died for us. It was His Spirit who opened our eyes so that we could understand the truth of the gospel. It is His Word that provides us with insight into His nature and daily guidance for our journey of faith. And it is God who gave us apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that he, Cephas and Apollos were nothing more than “God’s fellow workers” and they were “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9 ESV). Growing believers have a growing understanding of and appreciation for God’s work in their lives. They grow in their appreciation for His love and mercy. They grow in their gratitude for His unfailing forgiveness. They grow in their desire to please Him, not in order to earn His love, but because they are loved. They grow in their dependence upon Him. They grow in their desire for Him. They grow in their hunger for His Word. They grow in their trust in His promises. They grow into their salvation. And all this growth shows up in their behavior.