The Faithful Work of God
Passage: 1 Thessalonians 5:12–28
The Faithful Work of God
Have you ever run a race that you were not sure you would be able to finish? We just had the Little Rock Marathon last weekend, and probably not everyone who started actually finished the event. But I would bet that many of those who finished did so because they were not running alone. Now, I am not the type of guy that runs races for fun, I just think that’s insane, actually. But when I do run I definitely prefer to run with others. Why? Because I know that running is hard and if I run by myself I’ll quit before the first mile. A race is not necessarily easier when run with others, but it is a lot harder to quit when you have a friend running with you and encouraging you along the way.
And that is Paul’s point in our passage this morning. He is encouraging us to run together. Remember what he says in verse 11. In light of the imminent coming of Christ, he exhorts us to keep on encouraging one another and building one another up. In other words, Paul is saying, “Your salvation is near, so keep running and help one another to keep going. Make sure that we are all standing together at the finish line.” Brothers and sisters, the Christian life is not a sprint but a race, it is a marathon. But it is not a race meant to be run alone. In fact, it cannot be run alone. Perseverance in the faith and growth happen in connection to the people of God, in connection to the life and worship of the church. And so, Paul here at the end of this letter gives us five ways to encourage and build one another up as we run together towards the day of Christ: Love your Pastors, Minister to the Body, Worship God Together, Hold Fast to God’s Word, and Depend on the Faithful Work of God. Let’s look at each one of these in turn.
Love Your Pastors
First, we turn to verses 12 and 13, where Paul exhorts us to Love our Pastors. Notice first the two commands to respect and to esteem. We need to understand these two together. In other words, you cannot have respect where there is no esteeming. What Paul is getting at is a conscious and joyful submission to the leaders of the church. And although the office is not explicitly mentioned, Paul probably has in mind the elders or pastors of the church. Notice with me the specific responsibilities that these leaders exercise here in verse 12.
First, these leaders “labor among you,” Paul says. In other words, they fulfill a very specific role in the life of the church. Remember that Paul has already said that the work of encouraging and building up the church is the work of the congregation, of one another. But even so, there are still those who labor in the body in a specific way or role.
Paul begins with this general description of the pastor’s work. It is not easy work but it is labor, literally hard work.
Paul himself describes the unique hardship of pastoral ministry in 2 Corinthians 11. Do you remember that text? Paul lists all the hardships that he has faced in his travels, and then he says that on top of all these external difficulties, there is still the “daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” That daily pressure and anxiety for the churches is a good description of pastoral ministry. Pouring out your very life to present everyone mature in Christ at the final day, travailing for souls and families in prayer, and knowing very well that you are inadequate on your own strength to do any of these, is a daily pressure that can only be shouldered by God’s grace through the encouragement and ministry of God’s people.
So, when Paul says respect and esteem your leaders, he is not saying, “just be quiet and submit.” No, he is saying love your leaders. They are laboring among you and they won’t make it unless you support their work in loving submission. So the first and general responsibility of pastors is to labor among the flock.
The second responsibility is “to be over you in the Lord,” Paul says. The idea is both leading people and caring for people. Pastoral leadership in the Bible is described in many ways. For example, ruling, overseeing, or shepherding. But the foundational characteristic of the office is one of servanthood. The primary responsibility of those in pastoral leadership is to not proclaim ourselves, “but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Whatever authority elders have over the congregation is a borrowed authority, so to speak. It is not inherent in the office, it comes from Christ through his Word. So that elders are, along with the congregation, under the Lordship of Christ. That is why Paul here in verse 12 specifies that the authority of these leaders is “in the Lord.”
Brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ himself is the Great Shepherd of God’s people. It is Christ who died for his bride. And it is Christ who rules his church by the power of his Word. Those who labor among you do so as servants of Christ. And that is the very reason why we should respect and esteem them, because they serve and lead on behalf of Christ in accordance with his Word. That’s their second responsibility.
Their third responsibility is to “admonish you.” The idea here is to warn someone of an impending danger and to instruct them on the way that they should go. Because church leaders exercise their authority in the Lord they are responsible to take the lead in admonishing God’s people. The work of pastors is to lead well and to care for souls. And it is because of this work, Paul says, that we should love our pastors, consciously submitting to their leadership with joy. Not because of their knowledge, or status, or position, but because of their work. They labor among you on behalf of Christ.
And one of the ways you can love the elders of this church well is by praying for them and for their work. As Paul says in verse 25, “Brothers, pray for us.” Pray for your pastors regularly. Pray that we may shepherd God’s people willingly and not under compulsion. And pray that our work among you may be fruitful in the gospel to the glory of God in Christ.
Now, the end of verse 13 helps us see how lovingly submitting to our leaders actually helps us build the body of Christ. Look there with me, Paul writes, “Be at peace among yourselves.” Peace is the fruit of this conscious and joyful submission to church leaders. Loving your pastors is the rich soil on which all kinds of healthy fruit grows. Where there is loving submission to the leaders of the church there will be a harvest of peace. And where there is peace there will be an abundance of loving ministry happening among the body. And so the end of verse 13 is a helpful transition to our second point. Minister to the Body.
Minister to the Body
In verses 14-15 Paul lists three ways in which the church ministers or cares for one another. We admonish one another, we encourage one another, and we help one another.
First, Paul instructs the church to admonish the idle. We know from 2 Thessalonians that the idle were not simply lazy or passive members in the church. On the contrary the idle were actively neglecting to follow the apostolic instructions that they had received from Paul. In other words, the point is not simply that the idle refuse to work, but that they refuse to obey Paul’s instructions to work. They refused, in other words, to respect and to esteem highly in love those who were over them in the Lord. That is why they need to be admonish. And although the leaders of the church should take the initiative in admonishing the congregation as we saw in verse 12, it is nevertheless the work of the church to admonish one another, and specifically to admonish the idle.
Second, Paul instructs the church to encourage the fainthearted. The word used here for encouraging is often used to describe the consolation of those who have suffered the death of a loved one. The way Paul encourages them in chapter 4, if you remember, is by instructing them concerning the resurrection of Christ. The fainthearted are those literally of little soul. They are those who have no strength in themselves to look to Christ by faith and therefore they need someone else to remind them of the big realities of the gospel. Big doctrines like the resurrection of the dead, justification by grace through faith, the incarnation of the Lord Jesus, the Triune nature and sovereignty of God, all these are tools in your ministry for one another.
Third, Paul instructs the church to help the weak. Certainly this includes those who are physically ill but it is not limited to physical weakness only. The weak are those who need consistent and prolonged attention and care. Paul says they need help. Literally, they need the devotion of another. That is to say, they need someone to tell them, “I am here with you, and for you, and I will not let go of you. We started this race together and we will finish together.”
Now, there is much more that we could say about the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak. But Paul’s point is not to give us mere categories of ministry needs. The truth is that we are all in need of the ministry of the church. We are all in need of one another.
I honestly believe that the greatest danger in a church like ours where we treasure the truth of God’s Word and seek to be conformed to it in every area of life, is that some of us may conclude that in order to fit in we need our lives to look like a package where everything, from our theology, to our families, and our personal lives are all tidy up and nicely put together. But there is nothing more debilitating to your faith and growth in your walk with Christ than the feeling that unless you meet a certain standard, you won’t fit in among the people of God.
Brothers and sisters, let me say this as clear as I can, we are all in need of omnipotent grace. We are all in need of gospel encouragement every single day. We all need to be reminded that even when we are weak and even when our hearts are hardened so that we don’t want to listen to the wise and loving counsel of others, even then Christ is still a sufficient Savior for us. None of us has graduated into the level of spirituality in which we don’t need any more help or any more admonishing.
So how do we do this, how do we minister to one another? Paul says, by being “patient with them all.” Patience is the backbone of ministry. Caring for one another requires faithful patience. It requires the kind of faith that says, “Jesus Christ has united me to his people and therefore I will give the rest of my life to encourage and build up the church, whatever the cost.” It is a lifelong commitment that requires faithfulness and patience.
Now, verse 15 shows us what patience looks like. Paul writes, “See to it that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” Patient, loving, enduring ministry looks like consistently seeking to do good to others even when we are wronged. It is true that we are a redeemed people. But we are not yet a perfected people. And that means that our church is made up 100% of imperfect saints, including you, and including myself. We will sin against each other. And it will require that we extend patient love and forgiveness to one another just as God has forgiven us in Christ.
Notice what Paul exhorts the church to do in verse 26 at the end of the letter. “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.” It is interesting to note that every time Paul mentions this holy greeting in his letters it is always to a church that is facing some kind of disunity or lack of peace.
Greeting others with a kiss was the normal practice of Paul’s day. So what is so especial or holy about this greeting? This greeting is holy because of our common union with one another in the New Covenant, the covenant of peace. So that greeting one another is a practical and ongoing way in which the church is encouraged to maintain peace by upholding their covenant to one another. It is an expression of the gospel and of our mutual unity in Christ. This is what Paul is getting at, if you cannot look at somebody in their eyes as you come in through those doors and say “good morning” to them before you join together in worship, there is something wrong. If you cannot greet one another, there is no way you can fulfill any of the other covenant responsibilities like loving one another or praying for one another. How can you patiently minister to one another if you are not at peace with one another? Ministering to one another requires that we be at peace with each other and that we seek to do good to one another with patience. That is the second point.
Worship God Together
The third point is Worship God Together, in verses 16-18. It is characteristic of the people of God to regularly worship God in Christ together. “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” Paul says. These verses are usually used to commend Christians in their individual walk with Christ. And I think that is a good application of this passage. By all means, Christians ought to worship God and live for the glory of Christ not only when they gather together with God’s people but also every day as they fulfill their responsibilities at home, and at work, or at play. But my focus this morning is on the gathered worship of God’s people. And Paul lists three ways in which we should worship.
First, our worship should be marked by Christ-exalting joy. “Rejoice”, Paul writes. It is the same word he uses in Romans when he says that we rejoice on our sufferings and that we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It means to boast in God. It is the kind of boasting or rejoicing that recognizes that everything we have and everything we are is God’s. So that our worship should be centered on God and not on man. That’s why we emphasize the Word of God in the gatherings of our church. Because it is in the Word that God makes himself know. So we read God’s word, we sing God’s word, we pray God’s word, and we proclaim God’s word because God is the center of our worship.
Second, our worship is marked by prayer. “Pray”, Paul says. We not only rejoice in God but we are also totally dependent on him. We are dependent on God for our very life. And we are dependent on God for the life and health of our church. And so we pray, because we are God-dependent.
And third. We give thanks. Our worship together should be marked by an ongoing expression of thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ. Again, that is why when we gather together as a church we follow this pattern of hearing God’s Word and responding to God’s word with confession, or praise, or thanksgiving. You see it? Our worship together is centered on God, is dependent on God, and it is patterned to respond to God’s Word in thanksgiving. We rejoice, we pray, and we give thanks. And as we scattered out throughout the week our lives should be modeled after this same pattern of God-centeredness.
But they key is that Paul calls us to be consistent, to do this regularly. Rejoice always, he says. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. O the joy of regularly meeting with God’s people to worship God in Christ no matter our circumstances, no matter our suffering and sorrow. This is running the race well.
Do you believe that here, even now, God is at work among us through the ordinary means that he has appointed for his people? As we gather together we are in fact lovingly submitting to the leaders of the church as they have planned our service in such a way that Christ and his Word are exalted. And as we gather together we are also able to minister to one another as we hear one another respond to God’s Word in song and prayer. And as we sit under the preaching of God’s word, the idle are admonished, the fainthearted are encouraged, and the weak are helped. You see it? The third way in which we encourage and build one another up is by regularly worshipping God together.
Hold Fast to God’s Word
This brings us to our fourth point in verses 19-22. Hold Fast to God’s Word. It is important to remember that we are a Spirit-dependent people. And that means that we are a Bible-dependent people. For it is the work of the Spirit, having written God’s Word through the inspiration of prophets and apostles, to give us understanding of God’s Word and to apply it to our hearts. To quench the Spirit is simply to quench God’s voice in his Word.
The emphasis on these verses is on the positive command to hold fast to what is good. 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 actually is very helpful passage to understand what is going on in the church at Thessalonica. Paul writes there, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together with him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in this way.”
Now, whatever your views on spiritual gifts are, we can all agree that at the time of Paul’s writing, the gift of prophecy is a regular part of the ministry, at least, in some of the churches. And so we see instructions concerning prophecy in more than one book. But we should note that the emphasis of much of this instruction is oftentimes on the abuse of the gift. It is clear from many passages that this gift was supposed to be a spoken means of encouragement to the body. But that is not the way that it is being used in the church at Thessalonica. Rather, at least some in the church were abusing the use of this gift to speak lies that were troubling the church. And the problem is that by abusing this ministry these deceivers were robbing God’s people from God’s Word, from what is truly good.
Notice again that the emphasis is on holding on to what is good. But what is this good we are to hold on to specifically? It is Paul’s apostolic testimony and instruction to the church. It is what the rebellious idlers in verse 14 are refusing to follow. This is why in verse 27 at the end of the letter Paul puts the church under oath before the Lord to do what? To have his letter read to all the brothers. So here is the point, God’s people are called to hold fast to God’s true Word and not to the deceitful words of any man. The Spirit of God inspired the authoritative testimony of prophets and apostles so that the people of God may hear the voice of God.
By all means we want the Holy Spirit to enliven and empower our life and worship as a church. We are a Spirit-dependent people. But the primary means to open our lives to the work of the Spirit is to give ourselves over to the Word of God. To heed his voice therein. And to hold fast to it. So that’s the fourth point, Holding fast to the Word of God.
Depend on the Faithful Work of God
We come now to our fifth and final point in verses 23-24. Depend on the Faithful Work of God. The overarching theme of this entire letter is this: God is faithful to finish what he has started, so keep going. God is at work, so continue to abound more and more in what you are already doing. Keep running the race. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
Brothers and sisters, salvation belongs to the Lord. Our redemption and sanctification and perseverance is the work of God. It is God who loves us and chose us in Christ (1:4), it is God who establishes our hearts blameless in holiness (3:13), it is God who has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (5:9), and it is God himself who sanctifies us completely and keeps us blameless to the end (5:23). “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
God’s salvation is complete and total. We can spend a whole sermon going through these two verses, but Paul is simply trying to make the point that God’s salvation is sufficient because it is complete. There is nothing lacking, in other words.
Most commentators agree that Paul is piling up words and using intensifying language to exalt the faithfulness of God’s work. So for example, the phrase he uses to describe God as the God of peace borrows from the wealth of the Old Testament which views salvation as eschatological and final and which in the New Testament takes the sense of the restoration of all things in Christ. Paul also piles up three nouns when describing our sanctification, “body, soul, and spirit.” He is not giving us an outline on the makeup of human nature but emphasizing the completeness of our sanctification. Paul also uses the same term twice in different forms to describe God’s work, completely and whole, again highlighting the totality and completeness of our salvation. You see it? Paul is making the point that God will finish what he has started. He is faithful. And we are called us to trust and depend on the faithful work of God.
So, the question is, where is God working? Where do we see the faithful work of God? The answer is in the life and worship of the church. We see the faithful work of God among us as we love our leaders, minister to one another, worship God together, and hold fast to his Word.
The Christian life is a race, but it is not meant to be run alone. Let us depend on the faithful work of God as we seek to encourage and build one another up until we reach the finish line together at the day coming of Christ. Until then, may “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us.” Amen.