Heaven on Earth

Series: How to Live in the Last Days

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on Mar 13, 2016

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

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As you’re being seated, please turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5; 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. You’ll find it on page 988 if you’re using a pew Bible, as we conclude our study this evening on “How To Live in the Last Days.” We will be looking at verses 12 through 28 together in chapter 5. Before we hear God’s Word, let us go to Him in prayer and ask His blessing on it. Let’s pray together.

Father, our great prayer, our only prayer this evening is that You would open our eyes to behold wondrous things out of Your Law. We know that in ourselves we cannot do that, so we implore You, by the Spirit, to let us see Jesus from the Word. We ask You to do this for the sake of His great and awesome name. Amen.

1 Thessalonians chapter 5 beginning at verse 12. This is God’s holy, inspired, and therefore inerrant Word:

“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 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. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.

 

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. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

 

Brothers, pray for us.

 

Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.

 

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

 

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”

The grass withers, the flowers fall, the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever. Back in 1998, I had the opportunity to visit “Celebration” in Disney. This is a town that Disney bought a number of years ago and attempted to turn it into something of the perfect community. Every lawn was cut to a certain length, all the mailboxes were at a certain height, there were strict building codes and covenant codes to live in Celebration. One observer when it was first built said it reminded him of the set of The Stepford Wives, or maybe a more recent illustration, The Truman Show. And when you go to a place like that it’s kind of eerie. I remember feeling very uncomfortable walking around there because things were almost too perfect, as it were. And people getting together and building a town like Celebration really reveals something about us as human beings that is as old as time itself, namely the deep desire for perfection in this life. Ever since the fall, really, we have been attempting to construct Celebration, haven’t we? In fact, the construction of Celebration is really the reconstruction of something like Babel. It’s the city that we want to build heaven on earth.

And closer to home, because that can seem kind of abstract, we can agree and say, “Yes, humans are always trying to reach to bringing perfection down to earth,” but closer to home we have this Celebration tendency in all of our hearts as well, don’t we? Think about it this way! What are your “if only’s?” We desire perfection, don’t we? What are your “if only’s?” “If only I had this, if only this were that way, if only this kind of person would be in my life…” We desire to have perfection on earth. And Paul is going to show us here tonight that the only place to find a foretaste of heaven on earth is in Christ’s church, fallen and frail as she is, yet redeemed by His grace and indwelt by His Spirit. And every other attempt to bring heaven down to earth will end the same way Babel did, which was confusion, suffering, and death.

Now as we conclude this study, we’ve entitled it, “How To Live in the Last Days,” and we’ve seen throughout this study that the last days refers to the time between the two comings of Jesus, His first coming 2,000 years ago, and then His coming, second coming. So that’s what the last days refer to! And we come to this section of Paul’s letter this evening where he just begins to tell us what to do, one right after another. “Do this, pray this, do this thing.” He’s going after us that way. But notice the structure of this letter prior to these verses. Paul never reverses this order! You have to understand this! If we get this order wrong, we get the Gospel lost. Paul never tells us what to do, before he tells us what God has done for us. That’s what he spent the first three chapters doing, and part of chapter 4. Now as he concludes with these exhortations, they seem kind of disjointed but there’s a structure to them, as we’ll see. But the main thing to remember is, Paul is telling us what to do precisely because we already belong to Jesus, if you’re a Christian. He’s not saying, “Do these things in order to become a Christian.” He’s saying to these Thessalonian believers, “Because you’ve been redeemed, here’s what it looks like to live in between the comings of Jesus.” This is the broad painting strokes here, these are the broad strokes rather that Paul is painting with showing us what life between the comings of Jesus should look like.

And so what I want us to see from this text this evening is this; Paul teaches us that the church, the gathered body of believers professing the faith, and their children, is a picture of heaven on earth where the peace of Christ reigns as believers grow together in Christ-likeness. The church is a picture of heaven on earth where the peace of Christ reigns as believers grow together in Christ-likeness. And I want to look at this text under two headings with you this evening. In the first place in verses 12 through 22 - the community of peace. The community of peace. And then in verses 23 to 28 - the God of peace. So the community of peace in 12 to 22, and the God of peace in 23 to 28.

  1. The Community of Peace

Look with me there in verses 12 and 13. “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.” Now these verses, what I just read, really highlight one aspect of the community of peace, and that is the aspect of leadership. The other two, which we’ll see in subsequent verses, are fellowship and worship. The first thing Paul directs our attention to is leadership. This is the kind of leadership and the kind of submission to leadership that should be happening in the church between the comings of Jesus. And notice what the leaders are called to do - elders and deacons; I think that’s who Paul has in mind here - “to respect those who labor among you.” That’s the same word Paul used back in chapter 2, or chapter 1 rather, to describe his own manual labor with his hands. So in other words, work very hard. That’s the one thing that the leaders are called to do. And they’re “over” us. Notice how he says that there - and they are “over you.” Literally translated, it means something like, “They care for you. They work hard among you. They care for you.”

And they may admonish you. And this word for admonish means something like, “instruction with a goal to change in lifestyle.” So these leaders that are set over us, in God’s wonderful providence in the church, are to work hard, they’re to care for those who are placed under them, and they are to instruct with a goal to life change, to see that believers are set apart from the world. And then Paul details what we owe to those who are set over us. He says, “esteem them very highly,” to respect those who are over us. Now if you want to be radically countercultural today, if you want to be absolutely outside the mainstream, respect authority! That is to be absolutely countercultural today. We live in one of the most anti-authoritarian ages ever! And in one sense, we can understand why people react against church authority. They’ve been abused by church authorities perhaps! It seems like every time we turn on the news or we look on our computer screens on our newsfeeds we read of another scandal involving a minister. So the world has plenty of reasons not to trust those in leadership. But Paul says here, in a normal, healthy, functioning, Biblical church - if there is such a thing - as we strive towards that goal, that we are to be in submission to those whom God has placed over us. And those whom God has placed over the flock are to care for them. That should be the number one desire of a pastor, of an elder, of a deacon - to care for those whom God has placed under them. And then we’re called to submit.

Parents Must Model Respect for Authority to Their Children

Let me make this practical if I could! If you are at home, if you are a parent and your kids are there, if you want to instill in them a good, healthy respect of authority, don’t criticize authority figures in front of them. If you do have to make criticisms, do them in private and especially is that true when it comes to elders, deacons, and ministers. If our children do not learn to submit to the authorities God has placed over them in the church, we can be assured they will never learn to do it anywhere else. It starts in the home and it starts with how we are parents speak to one another about those whom God has placed over us.

Admonish Those who are Idle

Then Paul turns his attention to fellowship. Look there at verses 14 and 15; “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”

You see, when the peace of Christ reigns, that’s what he just told us right at the end of this last section, “be at peace among yourselves,” when that happens, when there’s wise leadership and we’re in submission in the way that we should be and peace begins to work its way through a community of believers, it begins to show up in certain kinds of behavior, Paul is saying. He says it results in the admonishing of the idle. Now this word here can mean a number of different things, but basically it means, as one commentator put it, people who are breaking their commitment to God, people who are not being faithful - it’s not just being lazy and not working; it’s more than that - it’s those who are breaking their commitment to God, turning away from Him, Paul says in a healthy, functioning community there’s going to be those people. We go after people like that and say, “Hey, come back! Come back to your first love.”

Patiently Encourage Those who are Weak

And then he says we’re going to encourage those who are weak. “Encourage the fainthearted.” You see how he’s covering basically anybody who shows us to a church? People who are struggling to be faithful, people who are wondering, doubting, weak, fainthearted, maybe thinking about walking away, maybe wondering if it’s all worth it. And then he says as well, “Be patient with them all.” And this is a particular word for patience and we need to understand the difference of how Paul uses them. The King James actually has a great translation of this word; we’re familiar with it, I think - longsuffering. Patience has to do, in Paul’s terminology, with circumstances; this word here has to do with people. To be longsuffering with people. Aren’t we naturally attracted to somebody who’s patient with us? I know in my own life I require patience, a lot of patience from others, particularly in my home. But when it comes to our lives, and we have people around us who are difficult; and just remember, when you’ve got a difficult person in your life, you are a difficult person in somebody’s life and so am I. Therefore, we should all have crash courses every day in being patient with people who are just like us. That’s what Paul is saying! In a community saturated with the peace of Christ, there’s going to be this wonderful forbearance, this patience, this longsuffering with one another.

And when that happens, we can stop being self-protective. Verse 15 - “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” You see, when you know who God is, when you have the peace that God gives, you don’t need to go seek vengeance for whatever wrongs are done to you. You don’t need to get even because you live under the reign of the God who got even with Christ in your place. Do you ever think about that, that God never gets even with you or me? All the times He could! He has a great case against us!  He never repays evil for evil with us! And he says, Paul says, “Do good to one another and to everyone.” You see, it spills out from the Christian church when true Christian fellowship is happening, when it really becomes a foretaste of heaven on earth, it’s not able to be contained. It spills out of the church’s doors; it goes into the lost world. We begin to seek to do good to all people because of all the good that God has done us in Jesus. That’s what Paul says happens in the community of peace.

Christians Should Rejoice Always

And then the last thing that he says under this heading here, he says there’s leadership, fellowship, and then worship. Verse 16 - “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Notice how he begins there with this worship thing. He says all of us are going to gather to worship, and what should mark out Christian worship? Rejoicing, always! Praying without ceasing. Giving thanks in all circumstances. And when he says, “Rejoice, always,” he doesn’t mean we put on a kind of plastic joy, a kind of feigned joy, faked joy. No, what he’s talking about here when you combine all of this together, he’s saying, “You and I, as those who have received grace from the Lord Jesus Christ, recognize that no matter what our circumstances are, God is with us. He’s never going to leave us or forsake us.” And it’s this settled attitude that says, “No matter how bad things are, no matter how awful are my circumstances, I can have joy because he just told us what’s coming - Jesus, life with Him forever, beginning now!” That resurrection life, that eternal life that breaks forth from the future into the present into our lives. That life gives us hope unquenchable so that when we join together and individually, we see all our circumstances through the hand of a wise, loving, and gracious God. Moreover, we don’t rejoice at the evil that befalls us. We don’t walk around and say, “Isn’t it great that I’m being persecuted, that my circumstances are terrible?” That’s not the New Testament command! It says we rejoice in the midst of it! We hate the effects of a fallen world and living in it, but that never steals our joy.

Christians Should Pray Constantly

And one of the ways we access that is by praying constantly. This is that attitude Paul wants us to have where it becomes reflexive to pray. Now again, everything militates against that in our culture, doesn’t it? As one commentator I read put it this way, “Have you ever seen somebody on TV recently stop and say, when they have a problem, ‘You know what, we should pray about this’?” When’s the last time you’ve heard that or seen that in a movie, on a television show? Everything around us tells us, “Don’t be dependent,” and what Paul says is, “The attitude of a Christian ought to be one of humble dependency upon God” so that it becomes reflexive for us to pray when things are not going well, when we need something. To be dependent little children.

 And then the last thing he says that ought to mark out our worship - joy, prayer, thanksgiving - verse 19, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” He works his way here from general to specific back to general. General command, “Don’t quench the spirit.” Don’t let your worship become so rote and so dry that the Spirit has no opportunity to move. Specific, “Don’t despise prophecies.” Now what does he mean by this? Is he saying that prophecies continue? I think what he’s saying here is simply this, as he speaks about elsewhere in Ephesians chapter 4. He says the Lord gave apostles and prophets to the church. This was a temporary office that God gave His church while He was foundation laying the stones, as it were. That’s what Paul speaks about in Ephesians. He’s a foundation layer! He talks about that in 1 Corinthians as well. That prophecies, at this time, were to be tested by the Word of God and when the death of the apostles happened, prophecies like he’s speaking about here, ceased. And you see what Paul is doing here is not telling us to seek individual prophetic guidance from God. What he’s saying is, at this time, be discerning.

How does that apply to us today, that last specific command, “test everything; hold fast what is good”? How do we become discerning people? Well, we come to a place where the Word is preached so we learn the Word. Then we begin to put that Word into practice in our lives and we begin to test everything against it. That means even popular Christian books which are constantly being put out there and some of them have terrible theology in them and they sell like crazy. And what Paul is telling us to do, what marks out Christ’s church between His two comings, is a community of believers that is filled with the Spirit, full of joy, and discerning, testing everything against God’s perfect Word. You know in my own life, when I’ve wanted God’s specific guidance for something and I wish, all of us have been there, you know, “God, if You would just tell me.” And every time I think about that, I realize that there’s sixty-six books in front of me that tell me. It’s just my own sloth, my own laziness not studying them to learn them better to see what God would say. So this is what the community of peace looks like and he gives that general summary there, “Abstain from every form of evil.” You see, Paul’s covered all his bases here. He says this is what marks out Christ’s church - joy, thanksgiving, prayer, fellowship, worship, leadership, abstaining from evil, following Jesus, not following the world.

And then Paul ends in verses 23 to 28 with the God of peace. And he ended, if you remember in chapter 3, he ended chapter 3 with a summary prayer to summarize those first two chapters, the first three chapters. He does that now here again, summarizing his whole epistle. He says in verse 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. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” You see, what Paul wants them to focus on, what he wants us to focus on as we live in the last days, is one word - God. Paul wants us to be God-centered in everything we do. This is His summary catch-all. He ends this letter where he began it. He bookends it with God. And with Paul, everything about him was centered on God. That’s what he means by your whole spirit, soul, and body. He’s not giving us a threefold division of a human person; he’s saying your totality, everything about you, has to be focused, centered on, bowing down to, daily living out in front of the face of - God!

And he’s the God of peace. And when Paul talks about what this God of peace who makes in His own image the community of peace, the church, what does he do? Paul points us to the fact that it is God’s work who does all this. He’s the one who keeps us faithful. All of us are going to have to be blameless at that great day that he just told us about in chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5. And the question is, “How do we ever become blameless?” And the only answer is by faith and faith alone in Jesus. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish! That’s how Paul ends here. May God sanctify you! How is this going to happen? All of these things he has just told us to do, he does not say, “Good luck. Have fun trying.” He says, “No, God’s going to do it. It may be painful. It will be painful. It may take time. It will take time. It will require everything of us.” Being a Christian is never a 50% commitment; it’s everything - whole spirit, soul, and body. “But he who calls us” - did you see that again? He began with election; he closes with election. It is God who calls us. “He who calls us is faithful; he will surely do it.” There’s no doubt. God’s going to bring His people to Himself, billions, myriads and myriads as John says, like the sand on the seashore, to worship Him forever and ever in blameless holiness and it’s all going to be His work. No one in heaven ever says, “I did it my way.” It’s all God’s glory!

And he also points us to Christ at the end. “Be kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Do you see? He mentions that coming of Jesus one last time to remind us what’s at stake. If we’re not those who are following Jesus, who are committed to live like this, however imperfectly, however often we fail, and fail we do and will, if we’re not those kind of people Paul says only vengeance, wrath await us. But he says if you are, and you’re weak, and you’re fainthearted maybe, and you’re wondering, “Am I going to make it?” he says Christ will do it.

And then he ends the letter where he also began as well. He talks to us about prayer, verse 25, fellowship, verse 26, and then in verse 27 and 28 something wonderful here. He’s so conscious of the fact that he’s writing God’s Word. “I tell you, in the Lord,” he says, “have this letter read.” He’s not just saying that because he’s on an ego trip. Remember we saw him; he says, “I’m telling you this in the Lord. This is God’s Word.” And then he finishes as he started, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.” From start to finish it’s grace. That’s what he’s saying. He opens with grace in 1 Thessalonians 1:1; he closes here with grace. Paul’s life, our lives, are lived between the brackets of grace - God’s calling, God’s election, God’s doing. Everything depends on Him - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What does this mean for us tonight as we finish this up? Christ and the church are so prominent in this last part of 1 Thessalonians because the only way we get heaven on earth in the church is if the Lord of the church, who is in heaven, abides with us on earth, if we know Him. The only way we become a peaceful, God-glorifying people with leadership, fellowship, and worship, is if we ourselves have peace with God through Jesus. Because if you’ve noticed here, everything that Paul details that should be in our lives was in the life of our Lord, wasn’t it? He was the one who was at peace with His enemies. He was the one who never repaid evil for evil. He is the one who rejoiced always, even when He was enduring a lawless trial and crucifixion. Our Lord was the one, when we read about Him, He’s always giving thanks, He’s always in prayer, He’s always the one who was blameless. And the reason that He lived that blameless life is precisely because you and I never could and then Paul could never write this to us unless Jesus had done what He did. We never would have had any hope of being blameless except for the Savior who did everything here that Paul calls us to do perfectly. And so what Paul is saying is, he’s saying, “Pray for us.” One of the things he wants us to pray for is that everything we see here, which pictures Jesus for us so perfectly, begins to be formed in our lives as individuals and as a body of believers. It’s all about Him.

Christians Must Remember

And you see, the only way to get rid of your “if only”s is to trade them for “He did.” The only way to go from being an “if only” kind of person to desiring a celebration on earth, the heaven on earth, the only way to go from the disappointment that inevitably accompanies “if only” is to trade them for “He did and therefore I’m satisfied.” That’s what Paul is telling us here. So how do we live in the last days? Let me give you two words to leave you with tonight; two words to summarize how we live in the last days. First, remember. Remember. That’s what Paul is really telling us to do here. This is the Biblical pattern. When you read the Old and New Testaments you find things like we heard from Psalm 75 - “We will recount your wondrous deeds. We will remember your great salvation for us, God.” We are spiritual amnesiacs, aren’t we? We don’t remember Him. We are forgetful in all of His mercies to us. And that’s what brings about the kind of gray haze that marks out so many of our lives, the joylessness, the prayerlessness. It’s because we don’t remember who He is. And that’s why we come here week by week. That’s why we sit under the Word. That’s why we open it on our homes daily. We’ve got to remember and everything around us says, “Forget it. Don’t remember it.” But if we want to live the way God has called us to live as we wait for Jesus from heaven, we remember.”

Christians Must Act

The second thing we do is act. We remember and then we act. This is the Biblical pattern. When we remember - that’s what Paul did, right? The first three chapters? Here’s what God has done in the past and before the world was even formed - election. All these wonderful doctrines, he puts them into remembrance of what God has done and then he says, “Now act on it. Here’s what He’s done for you.” And isn’t it that the very structure of the Ten Commandments as David has been wonderfully pointing out to us in the mornings, it starts with what God says to Israel, “I’m the one who freed you. I brought you out of the house of slavery.” Remember, then act. That is life in the last days.

A few years ago there was a movie that came out called, The Vow. In our home, the way we do it is, I get to pick the movie one week and Callie gets to pick the next time, and so I didn’t choose this movie but sat through it and was glad I did so! It was really a fascinating story based on the real life account of a couple named Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, but in the movie it’s about a couple named Leo and Paige and they have this car accident at the beginning of the movie and she goes through the windshield. And in the hospital, as this voice over, the husband says, “Moments of impact help us find out who we are.” And the rest of the movie details these moments of impact as he tries to win his wife back to himself. She’s forgotten him totally, she’s forgotten her life with him, she’s forgotten their friends, and this movie tells the story of his heartbreaking faithfulness trying to win the love of his life back to put her in remembrance.

And our lives in the last days are so much like this movie, aren’t they? In moments of spiritual impact - the trials, the sufferings, all the things that mark out our lives, the difficulties in these last days - we can forget who we are. We can forget who we are in Christ and we can expect all kinds of these moments in our lives in the last days returning for Jesus. And we forget. But you see, Christ is just like that faithful husband. When His bride forgets Him, He spares no expense to help her remember, to help us remember, to bring us back to Himself, back to our true home. And experiencing that together, here as believers united by Christ together in this place, as we do that, it’s truly a foretaste of heaven on earth that begins now. Let’s pray together.

Father, thank You for Your Word. Help us to enjoy the kind of fellowship, the kind of lifestyle that Paul details for us here. Help us to be patient, longsuffering people. Help us to enjoy worship, fellowship, and leadership. Give us grace, Lord, for the glory of Your great name to do these things, for we ask it humbly in Jesus’ name

©2016 First Presbyterian Church.

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