2 Thessalonians 1 – Now and Then

Read 2 Thessalonians 1

Paul holds a very interesting tension as he opens his second letter to the church in Thessalonica.  As they are facing persecution from the Roman Empire, the church is faced with a theological crisis.  What are they to do and what does faith look like in the midst of such horrible backlash and trouble.  Yet what we don’t hear from Paul is an ardent plea to “hold on to their faith,” but rather a thankful praise to God for their perseverance in the midst of all this.

He is thankful for what he has heard about the church and its work through this time, but he also wants to encourage them because he knows that the longer it goes on, the harder it becomes.  It is to this end that Paul looks to the Gospel message of strength and hope for both now and in the future.

Far too often, when we face troubles, we look to future hope for comfort.  We find solace in knowing that someday everything will be made right.  This is true; Jesus will come again and all things will be put in their rightful place.  Yet a Gospel based solely on future events actually minimizes the Gospel message.

Indeed much of the power of the Gospel message comes in the reality that the Kingdom of God is here and now!  Jesus Christ ushered in the Kingdom on earth through His life, death, and resurrection.  From that time on, the Kingdom of heaven has been expanding throughout the world.  Paul celebrates this very thing with the church in Thessalonica.  Despite all of the enemy’s attempts to stop them, the believers of that city continue to grow, adding to their number, and persevering through all the hardships the world throws at them.

We can learn from this too.  The church in North America  can face anything that comes our way, not through the power of lobbying groups and political work, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives working in and through us to expand the Kingdom of God.



Introduction to 2 Thessalonians

Like his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Second Thessalonians addresses questions concerning the Lord’s return and is meant as a pastoral encouragement to a body of believers facing persecution.  Given these similarities, it is likely that Paul wrote this letter not too long after the first.

It may have been that, after Paul’s first letter, there was still some confusion about elements of the Second coming, especially given the persecution that as going on.  More clarification was needed and so Paul addressed both of these subjects again.

As was true with 1 Thessalonians, and all other subject matter pertaining to the second coming, it is important to read this not in a vacuum but rather in the context of the other teachings regarding the end times, or what we call “Eschatology.”

The driving force behind Paul’s words to the persecuted church then and now is hope.  While circumstances in life ebb and flow, going from good to bad and bad to good, there is an element of the Gospel that transcends all of it.  We already know the end; we know that there is a greater future in store for us.  We know that there is nothing on earth that can separate us from that truth, from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus and sealed in us from now until eternity.

Whatever you are facing, whatever trials and tribulations come your way, we have the hope for something greater when this all comes to and end.  Yet, Paul doesn’t simply speak in terms of future hope.  We have hope for the here and now as well because the Kingdom of God is present, it is close, and it is expanding throughout the world.  The words of encouragement that come to us in Scripture are as much present-oriented, giving us the strength to endure hard times and the vision to see God’s work now, as they are future-oriented, giving us a hope for things to come when all things will finally be made right and find their fullness in the coming of Jesus Christ.



1 Thessalonians 5 – The Day of the Lord

Read 1 Thessalonians 5

Paul echoes Jesus’ teachings in the latter chapters of Matthew when he speaks of the coming day of the Lord and then expounds upon them.  Jesus taught His disciples that, while there would be signs of the final days, no one actually knows when they will be so we much keep watch and be alert, always being at work and ready for when the master returns.

These teachings come from Jesus by way of warning, however, Paul points out that, for those of us who are in Christ, we really don’t need to be worried about this.  Jesus’ return to earth, for those who believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, will be a time of great rejoicing!  All that we have hoped and longed for will finally come to fruition and as the former things pass away and all things are made new.  For Christians, teachings on the coming Day of the Lord is a reassurance of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

Teachings like this are also an encouragement to action.  Because we don’t know when this time will be, we need to be about the Master’s business, which is preaching the Gospel and making disciples.  While the invitation of grace is available and open to all, this message also reminds us that there will come a day when that will end, all will be accounted for, and the fullness of the Kingdom will be finally realized.

On that note, it is also important for us to remember that, while this is a message specifically directed toward a future event, that does not mean that the Kingdom has not come now.  In fact, Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom has come near through His work and the evidence of the Kingdom’s presence can be seen throughout the world.  Far too often we think about the coming Kingdom as a future thing, something we wait for, not something we participate in now.  When we do that, though, we miss out on the truth of the Gospel message that the life and work of Jesus Christ redeemed and transformed our reality now and the Kingdom of God is present and expanding here on earth each and every day!



1 Thessalonians 4 – Dead in Christ

Read 1 Thessalonians 4

I have to admit, the title of today’s thoughts is intentionally eye-catching.  We often talk about being alive in Christ; we often wonder about what happens to those who are alive in Christ but experience physical death.  In lieu of talking about living to please God, something that is certainly important, but is addressed time and again throughout the New Testament, it is important for us to look more specifically Paul’s words here on the Second Coming of Christ.

Paul is addressing a question or concern that the church in Thessalonica had about those among them who had or were dying.  This is a legitimate concern, especially when facing persecution that may, in fact, demand one’s life.

We have to acknowledge that what Paul is addressing here is a great mystery, even for him.  He is not necessarily, here or elsewhere, prescribing exact events or giving detailed outlines about the second coming or life after death.  Instead, this is a pastoral reassurance from Paul to these believers who are facing persecution and wondering about what happens when this life ends.

The first thing he does as he addresses this subject is talking about those who are dead as those who have “fallen asleep.”  In using this language, Paul is making the point that death is not the end, nor is it somehow an annihilation of the person.  There is some continuity between who we are now and who we will be when in the resurrection.

He also briefly talks about Christ’s second coming, referring specifically to the resurrection of the dead and the coming reunion that we will all experience at that time.  Some have taken this to be a reference to the Rapture, an interpretation of Scripture about the nature of Christ’s return.

Again, Paul is not prescribing the events of Christ’s return, but rather giving the assurance that, at that time, all those who believe, both dead and alive, will be reunited together with Christ.  This is not just to say that we’ll be together again, but also to reiterate the nature of the hope that we have in Christ, a hope that transcends all trials and difficulties that we have in this world… even death.



Exodus 1 "Womb or Tomb?"

Sermon Series: Leaving Egypt (drawing from the book by Dr. Chuck DeGroat)

As the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, so we too find ourselves in our own personal “Egypts,” places that used to have been places of growth and prosperity, now turned into places of bondage.  But God doesn’t leave us there… He has paved a way out of Egypt through the work of His Son Jesus Christ.

Questions for Further Discussion:

  • Read Exodus 1:1-14 again. Notice the shift from Israel growing and thriving to Pharaoh’s persecution.  What do you suppose provoked Pharaoh’s wrath?  What do you think causes this in our own lives?
  • How is your story mirrored in Exodus 1? How does this chapter speak to your journey?  Do you see reflections of this at HCRC?  What are they?  Have you contributed to it?  How so?
  • Think of some good thing that has become misdirected in your life (ie. desire for success that turned into workaholism, love for food that became overeating, etc.). What good thing behind these things might you be longing for?
    1. Think about this in terms of ministry. Are there ministries that have become misdirected?  What good thing are those seeking after?
  • “Institutionalization” is defined as the process of becoming embedded in a conception, norm, role, value, or mode of behavior within an organization, social system, or society as a whole. It is where we accept the current reality, no matter how bad or harsh, and even fight to keep it.  How have you become “institutionalized”?  What about the church?
  • How does it make you feel to know that Jesus has also taken the Exodus journey?


1 Thessalonians 3 – Persecuted Growth

Read 1 Thessalonians 3

There is a really interesting paradox that, throughout the history of the church, whenever real persecution happens, the church grows dramatically.  The paradox of this is that the persecution that takes place against the church, whatever form it takes, is meant to stifle and/or destroy the church and inhibit the spread of the Gospel message in any form.  Yet it is in these times that the Gospel message spreads at an increased pace and the church grows both in maturity and numerically.

Paul, as he is writing to the church in Thessalonica, addresses this very thing and also points toward at least one reason for this: persecution can often be the fire that refines the church into a much purer version of itself.  When the impurities and waste are burned away, metal becomes much more valuable and usable; this often happens when the true depth of faith and commitment to Christ is shown in the face of trial and tribulation.

Interestingly, this is exactly what Jesus promises His disciples when He comforts them about future trials.  He tells them they need not be worried about what they will say when they are dragged before leaders and judges because the Holy Spirit will speak for them (Matthew 10; Mark 13; Luke 12).

Another reason for the growth that takes place during times of persecution is the fact that it brings out a visible type of faith.  It is easy to belong and believe when times are good and peaceful, and it is not bad to have those times.  However, an entirely new witness emerges when believers hold fast to their identity and beliefs when everything around them would seek to pull them away.  In these times, people around us see our commitment, our hope, and our strength coming from a place beyond ourselves when it is not advantageous to us, and may begin to wonder what that is all about.



1 Thessalonians 2 – What It Actually Is

Read 1 Thessalonians 2

As he reminds the church in Thessalonica about the ministry they shared together when he was with them, Paul grounds all of what happened, both pleasant and difficult, in the Word of God.  He may be referring here to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the Old Testament, and/or to the preaching and teaching that he and others had done among them.  In any case, Paul’s feeling about what was happening there finds its foundation in the belief and reality that God speaks and that Word never returns empty.

This theological understanding about the Word of God has long been a part of the Church’s background.  We have long echoed the word of God in Isaiah, the God’s Word always accomplishes what God intends for it to do when it goes out.

Recently, though, it seems that the currents of relative truth and political correctness have challenged some of those notions.  People no longer believe that the Bible is the Word of God, a notion that has implications far beyond the scope of what simply happens on a given Sunday morning.

We believe, and Scripture tells us that it is authoritative, useful for teaching, rebuking, and training up in righteousness.  The power of those words come from them being the Word of God.  Take that away and it is simply another book, motivational and empowering at times, but just a book.

The other side of the coin is those who have militantly taken the Bible and beaten others over the head with it.  Scripture points out sin in its many forms, but always with an understanding of God’s love and grace for the sinner.  Failing to acknowledge this tension has led to profound injury and barriers to the Gospel message.

Thanks be to God that His promise of the Holy Spirit’s work through the opening of His Word is not solely dependent on us.  Since the very beginning, God has spoken and things have been transformed!  We are called to join God in His mission of bringing all people to Himself, to spread His message of love and grace.  Let us make sure, then, that our words and actions reflect truly what God’s Word says.



1 Thessalonians 1 – Inspiration

Read 1 Thessalonians 1

Paul opens his letter to the church in Thessalonica with great thanksgiving for what God is doing in their lives and for how they have responded that work in spite of great trials and persecution.  He lists three responses to the Gospel that he is thankful for, stating them in the proper orientation:

  • Work – Produced by Faith
  • Labor – Prompted by Love
  • Endurance – Inspired by Hope

Each is a response to the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ and their orientation is important.  Work does not produce faith; because of our faith, we respond by “working” for the Lord.  This is true with the other two as well.  The importance of this orientation cannot be understated.  If indeed the church in Thessalonica was living like this, it would likely be the reason for why they endured such persecution so well.

Simply enduring persecution isn’t the end for Paul, though.  Keeping in mind his posture in other letters, this too is an opportunity for the spread of the Gospel and to build up the church through their actions and example.

Even as Paul is writing this, he relays to them how he has heard of what they have been doing through other churches, that they have become a model to other believers in the region.  The church in Thessalonica has become an inspiration for Paul and for other churches in the region, pointing not to their own strength but to the hope that they have in Jesus Christ.

Churches in today’s context can learn from this.  It seems that, far too often, we try to find our own niche, our own little thing that makes us unique from other churches, and then we claim that as our strength… even our identifier.  The reality, though, is that our strength and our hope come not from our own programs or great ministry ideas, but from the one person that binds us all together: Jesus Christ.



Introduction to 1 Thessalonians

The city of Thessalonica was the largest city and also the capital of the province of Macedonia.  It is located in what is now northern Greece, on the Thessaloniki Bay making it an important port city.  Thessalonica was also located on a major junction of the great Egnatian Way, the same trade route that the city of Philippi was located on, where a road split off and headed north to the Danube river.  This made the city a strategic place for both the Roman Empire and the spread of the Gospel.

Paul first visited and set up a church in the city of Thessalonica, as recorded in Acts 17, on his second missionary journey.  He stayed there for less time than normal due to persecution.  His abrupt exit left the young church open to the persecution he was fleeing, a persecution they endured for which Paul commends them in chapter three.

He is also writing the church in Thessalonica to give them instructions and explain some subjects, perhaps things that he would have taught them had he been able to stay in the city longer.

Dealing with the subject of persecution in the church often brings up the subject of the “end times” as well.  In the first century, Christians were expecting that Christ’s return was imminent and could happen at any moment.  Most expected that they would live to see Jesus come back to set up His Kingdom.  This thought and desire permeates all of Paul’s letter to the church here and as such, this letter has been given the title of one Paul’s “eschatological letters.”

Eschatology means “the study of (or doctrine of) last things.”  Most of us think of the book or Revelation as the primary source for such study, but in fact much of what we know about the end times, death, and Jesus’ second coming actually come from Scripture outside of the book of Revelation and it is through those things that we begin to have the language and context to look at John’s Revelation.



Colossians 4 – Open Doors

Read Colossians 4

Pray that God would open doors to the Gospel

Pray that God would open doors to the Gospel

Remembering that Paul is in prison while writing this, he closes his letter with a request to the church in Colossae to be devoted to prayer for themselves and him as well.  Even though he is incarcerated, Paul is still fervently preaching the Gospel and believes that God is going to advance the Gospel through His situation, grim as it may be.  To that end, he requests prayer, not just that he would be able to tell others about Jesus, but that he would also have the wisdom to say what needs to be said.

What Paul asks for is quite profound.  We talk, in Christian circles, about always spreading the Gospel, showing God’s love to all whom we meet.  Yet how often to we ask God for the wisdom to say what needs to be said (or to not say what need not be said)?  We find ourselves in very specific contexts in our lives, no one context is similar to another.  Like Paul, we ought to be relying on the Spirit to give us the words to say, not relying on our own wisdom to get us by.

More than that, though, Paul encourages the church in Colossae to “make the most of every opportunity.”  This too is an encouragement for us.  How many times have we heard stories about people who regret not saying something to a friend, loved one, or coworker, thinking that they would have an opportunity later only to find out some tragic thing happened.

People in the world are walking in darkness, the eternity of their souls at stake.  We cannot afford to be lax in our words or our actions, simply waiting for another day.  For Paul, the time to preach the Gospel was now.  Whether he was in prison, at home, or on the road, he sought the spread God’s Good News of love and grace, praying that God would open every door and give him every opportunity.



Colossians 3 – Living the New Life

Read Colossians 3

The theme of life and death is one that runs throughout the Old and New Testament.  In fact, much of the meaning of Christ’s death as a sacrifice for our sins derives its meaning from the Jewish sacrificial laws and worship cult (which means: a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object) that was in place in the Old Testament.  For them, the understanding of the need for something to die so that one may live was normal and natural.

So when Paul talks about the New Life that we have in Jesus Christ in terms of putting to death some things so that we can live a new life, it would make sense in this culture.  Ultimately it is Jesus who died that we may have true, redeemed life.

For us to live this new life, though, our old life needs to die as well.  Paul talks about this in other places by saying that it is his “old sinful self” that was crucified with Christ and died with Him there, and when Christ was raised from the dead, so too is our new self raised with Christ.

Paul places several practical applications to this at the end of the chapter, but how he talks about it shows the everyday nature of new life in Christ.  He probably recognized that the difference between talking about the new life and actually living it are two different things.  While it isn’t as easy as putting on your clothes, it certainly is a daily decision to do so.  In the same way that, every morning you have to decide what you are going to wear that day, we have to choose to put on the clothing of our new life.  Sometimes those will feel more like work clothes than casual, but the simple fact is that each day we have to chose to put them on and live into the profound gift that God offers us in Christ Jesus.



Romans 3:9-26 "But What About…?"



Colossians 2 – What Fills You?

Read Colossians 2

When we find ourselves looking around in life for next best thing we don’t often take a moment to look back at the “last best thing” and examine why it didn’t live up to whatever we hoped it would live up to.  Instead, we tend to follow trends and fads, blown this way and that by the winds of culture and who knows what else.

In much the same way, the church in Colossae was facing down a number of different “new teachings” and such that offered them something more than “just the Gospel.”

One the surface, even as I write this, that doesn’t sound so bad.  We tend to do this a lot in the church of today.  We have the Gospel, but then we jazz it up with praise bands and new music, fancy worship venues and effects, hipster preachers and particular language.  All these are done to “meet a need” or to “reach a target group,” and sometimes it even works.

However, the problem often comes in the fact that, what was once a womb, far too often becomes a tomb.  What happens when music styles change or culture shifts?  Do we change with them?  Good intentions aside, the answers far too often is no.

Why?  Because we are comfortable with the familiar.  Because the familiar where all the good memories come from.  It is, after all, what got us here in the first place…

But should that thing, whatever it is, whether at church or personally, be what is filling you?  It may taste good at the moment, like spraying a can of Reddi-Wip in your mouth, but it will ultimately leave you hungry and wanting real food.

Jesus is the true spiritual food.  He is the Bread of Life; He is the Living Water.  Ultimtaely, it is He who satisfies and nothing else.  Human rules and traditions can be nice, they can even direct us toward deeper worship.  Be careful, however, that they do not become an end unto themselves for it is in that moment that what once led us to drink at the well of life, becomes nothing more than a path to a dry desert.

 



Colossians 1 – Supremacy

Read Colossians 1

Paul opens his letter to the church in Colossae with joy and thanksgiving for the work that God is doing in the community of faith there.  Quickly, however, he gets down to business, even in his greeting, reminding them of the enormity and simplicity of the Gospel that is the foundation of their faith.

He does this on purpose, knowing that one of the things that they have been struggling with is a number of false teachings in which things are being added to the message of Christ.  Far too often it seems that things are being added to the simple Gospel message…

Yes, Christ died for you… but you have to follow this tradition…

Sure, Jesus forgives your sins… but you have to have special knowledge for salvation…

Of course God will save you… if you avoid all the good things the world has to offer…

These were a few of the false teachings that were slipping into this relatively young church, and things that often slip into our own practice of faith as well.

The issue?  Disorientation.  As we are following Christ, keeping on the “straight and narrow” road, other things in life pop up, whatever they may be, and our straight and narrow path becomes a bit zig-zaggy.

This is true with our faith as well.  We claim Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives, but as we press on toward the goal, other objectives seem to enter in.  Sometimes they are things we are told we *have* to do (legalism, traditionalism, etc.), or maybe things we *have* to believe.  In any case, our faith becomes “the Gospel and…”  Sadly, most of these things start out as good parts of our lives, things that help to direct us toward God, and end up becoming idols in and of themselves.

Paul, however, makes sure from the get go that his readers in Colossae understand that with Jesus Christ there is no “and” to the Gospel.  He is supreme in all things, being both equal with God and the only one who can reconcile us to God.  Salvation comes from no one  and nothing else.



Introduction to Colossians

The book of Colossians is another one of Paul’s letters written to a church while imprisoned in Rome.  While the city of Colossae was not a very major city at the during the 1st century A.D., it was unique in that the church itself was started by Epaphras, a convert from the city of Ephesus.  This may make the church in Colossae one of the first church plants recorded in the Bible.

Because the church itself was young and its leadership rather inexperienced, it fell prey to the inroads of heresies, false teachings both from outside and within the Christian community.  While these are never directly described, it is possible to understand them based on what Paul is talking about.  The NIV study Bible lays them out in this way:

  1. Ceremonialism / Traditionalism – strict rules about eating, drinking, and religious festivals
  2. Asceticism – avoiding earthly forms of pleasure for religious reasons
  3. Worship of Angels – Belief that there were certain spirits from God through whom we approach Him.
  4. Devaluing the person and work of Christ – placing other things (like all of these other heresies) as being more important that the life and work of Jesus Christ.
  5. Secret Knowledge (pre-gnostic thinking) – a heresy that developed into a full-blown sect of Christianity, that somehow the way to God was through “secret knowledge” and “hidden secrets”
  6. Reliance on human wisdom and tradition – a topic Paul often addresses in his writing, certainly not unique to the church in Colossae.

Paul begins his writing specifically addressing the preeminence of Christ.  Placing Him above all things, in the rightful position in the world and in our lives and Lord and Savior solves a good portion of the heretical problems that the church in Colossae was facing.  When we understand this and our lives are oriented around it, we recognize the adequacy of Christ in all things and also realize our own empty weakness.