Last week’s worship service at my church was well attended. But I knew this week would be different.
I knew it when I started study of the next passage in 1 Thessalonians, the book of the Bible I am preaching through. It occurred to me that this is not something that Satan wants the people of my church to hear. Hearing about lives full of hope, as they did last week, would not be a problem. That would have been a feel-good message. Nothing much to worry about in that, from the enemy’s perspective.
But this week’s topic threatened to undo the his progress in gaining footholds in people’s hearts. It would undermine his efforts to bring division in the congregation, with the goal of removing our lamp stand of witness as Christ’s church. It would threaten the ground he had gained through sowing seeds of discontent.
Seeing that passage, I expected attendance to take a hit—and it did. Not that people would be absent for wrong reasons. That’s not the way Satan works. People would be elsewhere for good reasons, legitimate reasons—scheduled trips, ailing health, caring for others.
The sermon from 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 had to do with the spiritual health of the congregation I serve as pastor.
We started with this premise: a healthy church is a community of people alive and active with the hope of the gospel. We got that from the groundwork Paul laid earlier in his letter.
We explored from our text three levels at which a community of hope operates. Each of these levels gave us areas for self-examination.
A community of hope operates at a pastoral level.
A church not operating on the basis of hope is often enveloped in a cloud of negativity. Like the thick fog my area experienced last week, it shrouds everything. The fog made it difficult to get one’s bearings on the road. Lack of bearing in respect to the hope of the gospel makes it difficult to move forward, sapping energy and the will to press on. Even positive things are swallowed up in its thick haze, having minimal and temporary encouraging impact. Navigating through the fog leads to frustration and unrest.
What lurks behind the unrest? The Apostle Paul attributes it to a problem in leadership.
Paul’s emphasis is not what we might think, however. He doesn’t call the elders to task. There are places where he does that, such as the get-together he had with the Ephesian elders at Miletus on his way to Jerusalem (Acts 20). But the leaders are not his focus here. Here’s what he says: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.” (v. 12)
Leadership involves not just the leaders. It includes the followers as well. That’s what the writer of Hebrews stresses: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17).
Paul identifies three things in v. 12 the elders are in place at Christ’s design to do.
What is expected of the “brothers” in return? Two things. Church members are “to respect” their leaders (v. 12), and “to esteem them very highly in love” (v. 13a) because of the job Christ has given them to do.
Leaders aren’t perfect. A dad makes mistakes. He messes up. He could do a better job. But what happens when his children don’t respect him or honor what he has to say? How does that affect the health of the home?
What will the result of respecting and honoring be? Paul tells us: “peace among yourselves” (v. 13b). Attaching this peace as he does to God-honoring regard for our leaders, says this is one way that we pursue peace in the church—by respecting and esteeming our leaders very highly in love.
Satan does not like that. He wants to promote disunity, division and disorder. Rather than working to promote respect and esteem for leaders, he incites gossip and backbiting that runs rampant like a cancer, destroying the body and polluting the souls of those who spread it. Effectiveness of the church is stifled because people are not willing to follow, like a captain charging into battle and the men just stand there. Instead of being part of the solution, people point the finger of blame. And worst of all, it means the ultimate Leader, the Head of Church, Jesus Christ, whose leadership design it is, is not followed.
A community of hope operates at a mutual level.
As we saw, one of the jobs of the elders whom the Lord raises up over the flock is to admonish (v. 12), not easy work, commonly unpopular. But Paul goes on to emphasize that it is not just the leaders who are to do this in a healthy church. “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (vv. 14-15). Paul urges “you, brothers,” the church at large.
Pastoral care is not just the job of the pastor. Shepherding is not just the calling of the elders. It is the responsibility of each of us in the context of a community of gospel hope. How does the body mature and grow? The apostle explains it in terms of mutual ministry. “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16). A healthy church grows out of mutual ministry.
We see this brotherly ministry happening in my church in a number of ways. A couple, seeing the need, taking it upon themselves to visit shut-ins. A guy who has learned the hard lessons of a marriage break-up and experienced the grace of God in the midst of it, reaching out to comfort someone with the comfort he himself received. A benefactor making booklets addressing all sorts of real life issues available as resources for those dealing with these issues and for ministering to others.
In v. 14, Paul sorts out three groups for the attention of mutual ministry: the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak. The pastor is not going to know all that’s going on in people’s lives, but usually there is a fellow believer who does. If someone is idle, not involved, urge him to involvement. The word for “idle” could mean undisciplined or disorderly. If we witness a fellow believer sowing seeds of discord by gossip or criticizing, we can approach him with the counsel of Ephesians 4:29. If they are fainthearted, listen and minister to them. Maybe they need TLC, maybe a kick in the pants. If they are weak, help bolster them and help them find strength in Christ. Help restore them in their weariness, and help bear their burdens in the spirit of Galatians 6:1-10. That’s not just the pastor’s job; it’s all of ours. We are the ministers, just as Paul suggests in his “one another” applications of 1 Thessalonians 4:18 and 5:11.
What the apostle is saying is this: we are to be agents for well-being in the body and not for harm. Rather than be a cancer through gossip, we are to build each other up in the faith and in the work of the body. Rather than be a tool in the hand of Satan to discourage and divide, we are to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit to edify and encourage. As he presses in v. 15, we are to make it our business to do “the good” (the word has a definite article) God has ordained that we should do (cf. Eph. 2:10), rather than evil.
Paul wraps up his pleas for mutual ministry in v. 14 by urging us to “be patient with all.” I just finished writing a book on the fruit of the Spirit. I had written using the ESV, but the publisher asked me to change to the NKJV. Pretty much the same, but there was one word I had a challenge with—patience. The NKJV translates patience as “longsuffering.” “Love is patient, love is kind…” has a different feel from “love is longsuffering….” But that exercise actually helped me to explain patience as that which suffers long with people, rather than throwing in the towel in exasperation or writing them off. That’s just what hope does—it perseveres. It produces a tensile strength, a resiliency to a community of hope.
Satan wants us to forget mutual ministry. He wants us to look to all that the pastor and elders fall down on or don’t get to and criticize them, rather than taking up the mantle of mutual ministry given us by our Lord. He wants to rid the atmosphere of grace, producing an environment inhospitable to health and growth.
A community of hope operates at a personal level.
In one sense, everything Paul has told us is personal. He calls us to personal responsibility in how we act toward our leaders, and in how we act toward one another in the church. But now he gets personal in that he speaks to what is going on in our own mind and heart and will.
What he shows us is what spiritually healthy people look like. He holds up four main areas to help us examine ourselves for spiritual health. For these we need to pull out the mirror James extends to us in James 1:21-26, so that we can see what the Spirit is showing us about ourselves.
Each of these is a symptom of personal spiritual health that contributes to the spiritual health of the body that is the church.
What does our Lord want us to do where we are unhealthy in these areas? To answer that we want to note something about our text. Each of the four areas (relating to joy, prayer, thanks, God’s Word) is given by the Spirit of God as a command. These are not just characteristics of spiritual health, they are commands by God to our cultivating it.
Are there areas we need to repent of, and ask for grace in bringing about the fruit of repentance in new obedience? The Spirit who holds up the mirror of His Word is the same Spirit who holds up the Christ by whom we can do all things. He gives us His truth and supplies us with wisdom for the asking.
A healthy church is a community of people alive and active with the hope of the gospel, a hope bound up in Christ who formed us for Himself and holds us as His own.
To lose hope is to lose sight of Christ. It is to take off the helmet of salvation that Paul speaks of in the verses preceding (1 Thess. 5:8). It is to remove the shield of faith and love and allow the enemy’s darts to weaken our faith and diminish our love for Christ and one another. To do that is a recipe for growing weary and losing heart. It plays right into our enemy’s hands.
Hope reminds us this is about Jesus—His presence, His working, His resources, His purpose. To be a community of hope is to cultivate a culture of hope, alive and active in the power of the gospel.
May God grow us as spiritually healthy churches, as He works in each of us spiritually healthy hearts.