“May [Christ] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones…”
– I Thessalonians 3:13…
In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians we can see that he not only enjoys spending time with these folks and loves them but also that he is impressed with them…
In particular, this church located the large capital city of Thessalonica in Macedonia – which he helped to found right at the beginning of his Apostolic ministry – had faced intense suffering and persecution but also held strong to the Christian faith….
Paul writes about them, for example, in the first chapter:
“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia…”
First and foremost, we can see that Paul takes a certain pride in the Thessalonians, like a father might of his children…
Second, we can see here that Paul is indirectly giving voice to something that all of us know is true, and that is that in life… there are certain people who show good character, as we say, and hence are good examples.
They are the kinds of people that we want our children and grandchildren to be….
And the kinds of people also that we want our children and grandchildren to be around!
And, in fact, this concern for good character – for morality – is something that we can find the world over…
People from all over the world, no matter where they live, no matter when the live, have always been concerned about such things. It is not only because people want their children to be socially successful in the world, to be respectable.
That, of course, is no small part of things. What they ultimately want, however, is for their children to be good people.
I mean, to an extent. People want their children to be good… but not “too good” either…
On the one hand, this “not being too good” might have to do with wanting your children to have actual wise character, and not just a legalistic predilection for “following rules”.
On the other hand, this often will have to do with, again, the issue of respectability. Not everyone would necessarily be proud to have a family member whose truly ethical behavior makes them stick out… and just happens to make others around them feel uncomfortable…
For example, in Thessalonica, moral values regarding sexual issues were not of the highest caliber, to be sure. In this Greek harbor town, “the idea of sexual purity was [a] complete novelty…” and a certain level of craftiness would have been regarded as normal and prudent…
Paul also deals with this issue in this letter, reminding the Thessalonians that they are not pagans and that the Lord desires they avoid sexual immorality…[i]
Sometimes – most of the time really – people grow up in environments, in cultures, where what is considered normal and acceptable actually involves suppressing the truth about the real consequences for our actions a great deal, and hence a kind of ignorance of what is good persists as people form powerful false beliefs.
And so here Paul, even as he praises the Thessalonians here for being good examples, is working in this letter to also help them make some adjustments…
And when he does that, he uses family metaphors all over…
This is where, I believe, things get very interesting….
Let me read a few longer excerpts from this letter. In chapter 2 of the letter, Paul says the following:
“…we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7 Instead,we[, myself, Timothy, and Silvanus,] were like young children[a] among you.
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out…
Near the end of chapter 2, Paul goes on to say this:
“17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy….”
Now, maybe when you hear Paul say these kinds of things, you don’t find anything unusual. And, if that is the case, I think that would be a very good thing!
At the same time, I think there are some who, at best, might have a lot of questions about what Paul is saying, and others, at worst, who might see some major problems with his words, saying “How can this possibly be relevant for today?”
Let me explain a bit…
I am under the impression that if the Apostle Paul hired a modern-day consulting firm, they would urge him to adjust his messaging a bit…
Please note, that in the next several minutes, I am intentionally imitating my imagined consultant who seeks to make the Apostle Paul more palatable for today…:
The first problem here is that with these family metaphors, Paul is not considering the currents of the contemporary world. He is out of touch and out of step.
After all, Paul brings up sexual morality in this letter, as we have already mentioned, which implies that he is concerned with more or less traditional morality.
Paul thinks marriage, for example, should be one man and one woman for life!
So, this creates a wide array of other problems… Paul is thinking about what some have called the traditional family. He is not being sensitive that today, because of the freedom of choice we all have, there are a multiplicity of valid family forms…
People don’t need to be married to have families! And in bringing up children and mothers and fathers, Paul is not acknowledging that someone might have two dads, or two moms, for instance. And what about those who have a mom who decides to become a dad or a dad who decides to become a mom? And what about moms who decide that having three dads, for instance, might be necessary to help make ends meet?
And doesn’t Paul think about all the single mothers and fathers who are doing the best they can? When Paul builds on the ideas of the work mothers and fathers do in order to talk about his own efforts, he is giving every impression that the work of both mothers and fathers is somehow uniquely valuable…. And its not, of course. None of us are replaceable, as we say today… and Paul should recognize that in speaking like this, some who do not have a mother or a father, for instance, are not going to be able to identify with what he is saying.
And they will feel alienated… So, some adjustments are in order…the child and brother and sister language stay – as long as we acknowledge brothers can become sisters and vice-versa – but the other stuff needs to go.
There are more problems too… In chapter 4, Paul says this….:
“…brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus….”
Well, this just kind of builds on what we just said, doesn’t it? It means that “being good” means operating in certain grooves that God means for us to inhabit. We are getting the impression here that we like a train which is built for certain tracks, and that that is the way it is with us…
That we can’t actually be good unless we are taking seriously something we call “the good”! This is a bit medieval. Again, starts with a prior understanding of what the natural family is and why it exists… This is why Paul can say, for example…
“You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children…”
This stuff needs to go! Here, by the way, we not only see that Paul persists with the problematic father-language…. But he is also taking about how “holy, righteous and blameless” he and his colleagues were. This brings us to the second issue…
When Paul talks about being “holy, righteous and blameless” he also piles on later on, as you heard in your reading for today, where he says…
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you…”
This is too much. Here, I should add that it is clearly not only the world who is unimpressed with his Christian view of the world that praises things like traditional sexual morality, the natural family, and hard work, but that many in Christian circles are also unimpressed with his condescending attitude….
One commentator puts it that Pauls’ desire is to “correct, restore, and equip them in respect to faith… they had room for additional growth, and Paul felt his presence could foster it…” (Robert L. Thomas, Expositors’s Bible Commentary).
Well, that is one way of putting it… but another is to say that Paul seems to be implying that he is, in some sense at least, holier than the Thessalonians! Somehow better than them; superior to them! Thinking that he is going to be a father to them, perhaps suggesting some patriarchal authority…
So here is our second issue really… Why does Paul have to act so self-righteously? He’s one to talk like this![ii] Why does he have to treat the Thessalonians like they are immature children who need his wisdom and guidance? Doesn’t he realize how bad this looks?
And really, Paul should see that even from a practical standpoint, it might make sense to tone things down a bit, by which he might distinguish himself with some of the politically radical persons today who give off an aura of self-righteousness…. That turns people off and a backlash should be expected. Paul could likely gain followers and acceptance from the wide swath of more moderate folks out there….
That brings us to the last part…. The third thing we need to point out is that men tend to not be as emotional as women. They should be more emotionally deep of course, as they shed their toxic masculinity. But in the meantime, as we slowly approach that future goal, it might also make more sense for Paul to lay off his expressions of great love for the Thessalonians…
After all, the 4th century church father John Chrysostom noticed that “Paul’s payers [here] demonstrate a fervent soul unable to restrain his love… Do you see the unrestrained madness of love shown by these words?”
Yes John Chrysostom, that is right — and this kind of thing really won’t do for now… Comparing yourself to a nursing mother is bad enough. You are going to make a lot of men feel uneasy and uncomfortable…
Yeah, no man should be calling other people their hope, joy, and crown… Seems too extreme. You should not make yourself sound so needy…. This could make you seem like a high-maintenance person…
OK, enough making light of things here – though I hope you get my point…
In view of all of the above, let’s seriously reflect as Christians on all of these things…
The fact is, we need to recognize that it is indeed true that many in the Western world at least do see the Apostle Paul in particular, and the Bible in general, as being out-of-step with the contemporary world. Right now, in Finland, a pastor is looking at possibly two years in prison for talking about what the Bible says about homosexual acts. Elsewhere, in America, University Presses are normalizing pedophilia…
They say that a fish doesn’t recognize the water in which it swims….
We need to recognize the water in which we swim, and the problems which it creates for us according to the Bible.
We need to know who we are at the core of our being, and to focus on the external things that will nurture that inner life and truly bless us and others, and not those things that will bring curses…
And we also need to recognize that there is nothing unhealthy about the fervent desire that the Apostle Paul has for the congregation of Thessalonica.
God does indeed mean for us to be emotionally deep and profoundly aware of who we are and who the others are around us – He means for us to know one another ever more deeply, being more invested in each other… and we do that in part by knowing who we are in Him…
And finally, when it comes to the matter of spurring people on to lives of holiness that are pleasing to God, there is nothing wrong with what Paul implies about himself or the congregation…
Consider, for example, what he says in Galatians 6 where we actually read the words:
“…If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load….”
We probably all know people who are self-righteous jerks. Maybe you even felt that way when I was being the consultant… : ) And, yes, listening to Paul, we might have been prompted to think of the country song that says “O Lord, its hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way…”
…but we also know that there is really something to what he is doing….
Character matters deeply, after all…
We do want friends who will treat us well, who will be good people. We don’t just marry anyone, but we should look for a person who is of good character. We know that God means for all of us to indeed “get better,” that is, to go from immaturity to maturity, to completion, which is just another word for perfection…
Yes, again, we are all sinners. Indeed!
None of us “deserves” God’s grace and mercy. Indeed!
But these things are true as well!
So Paul really does think he can say this, and set himself up as a “standard of love to be emulated”. Why? Again, not necessarily because of any self-righteous pride but because of his own very real imitation of Jesus (see 1:6) who is the ultimate standard (John 13:34; 15:12).
That is why he says earlier: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord…” He indeed wants the Thessalonians to continue on with this…
Just like a good father and mother desire the best for their children, for them to eat healthy food and to participate in good activities, so God, through the words of His Apostle Paul, desires the best for us… has high expectations for us!
Finally, how does all of this fit in with the text that I have chosen for today?:
“May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones…” – I Thessalonians 3:13…
This doesn’t mean that we are saved by our good character and actions.
That is not true, even if bad character and bad actions will certainly set us up for faith-destroying and doubt-inducing circumstances!
No, again, it simply means that God desires you to be ever more fully the man or woman who He has called you to be, particularly in these last days when you can be a good example to those around you…
Yes, you are not in heaven yet, in Paradise, yet, and you have an Old Adam that clings to you, and that will attempt to drag you down this or that dark path…not only in deeds, but words and thoughts…[iii]
Nevertheless, cling to your Good Shepherd and the forgiveness and strength He gives you daily…
Identify with Him always and His work!
…because the person who has learned how to die with Jesus Christ is the person who has also learned how to live!
I hope this kind of talk encourages you.
I hope that each and every one of you, having even only a spark of faith within – given to you by God when you hear about His great love for you in Jesus Christ – can identify with what I am saying…
If you are not sure, know that even now you can be sure though His blood, and be ready to “lift up your head” when He comes!
Even as that fearful Last Day we heard about in our Gospel lessons comes fast and furious, you can know right now that you have real peace with God, that Jesus Christ is for you and not against you!
As one pastor put it, encouraging his own congregation:
“…what the world cannot see is that even though we are all muddling through this life with our tilted halos, scrappy faith, and scuffed-up Bibles, Jesus nonetheless pronounces us blessed – yes, blessed! We are blessed because He opens our hands to receive continually; blessed: because we are continually given the gift of sorrow for our sins; blessed: because we are given a hunger for the Lord and His gifts. Yes, we are blessed because just like those Saints who have passed away and are with Jesus, we too are clothed in the same righteousness of Jesus….”
As we heard, the prophet Jeremiah says…:
“14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
15 “‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[a] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior….’
This is the prophecy of the coming Messiah, the Jesus Christ, the heartbeat of the message of Advent, which we begin today!
This is our Lord Jesus Christ.
The ever-just One.
The ever-powerful One.
The ever-merciful One.
The ever-empowering One….
And so let us all pray, along with the Psalmist:
4 Show me your ways, Lord,
teach me your paths.
5 Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.
6 Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love,
for they are from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
for you, Lord, are good…
[i] Chapter 4:
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body[a] in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister…”
[ii] And the old Adam in us rebels vs. the person of the Apostle Paul.
Better: the old Adam in us strengthened by particularly American cultural characteristics rebels….
“Paul – you jerk – I’m not so bad!
My faith isn’t any weaker than the next guy! We are all sinners Paul – your love isn’t so hot either!
(and I saw what you wrote about women earlier!)
I suppose you think that you are progressing in holiness and leaving the rest of us behind!
I suppose you think you superior because you have the gift of celibacy!
I suppose you think you are just better than us…
I’ve heard about you rigorous types! I wonder what secret sins, struggles, you are hiding?…”
Has this ever happened to you?
Do you find yourself thinking – or even saying such thoughts?
If so, don’t feed the beast…
[iii] The fact of the matter is that no true Christian would talk like our imagined consultant this morning…
Oh, they might to be sure – for a short while or so…
But then they catch themselves, as the Holy Spirit stirs up within them and reminds them who they really are in Jesus Christ:
Those who are God’s children, all dearly loved by their father in all their uniqueness and glorious particularities!
This is one of the reasons that Paul is so clearly emotionally moved here…
The Thessalonians are those who rejoice in the victories of others, who find great comfort in Christian fellowship, and who desire, even long for, both correction and guidance…
As those who are new creatures in Christ, we have new impulses, spiritual impulses… and one of those impulses is to take on the old Adam in us and tell him to take a hike. Go for a walk, etc…
Go away old Adam! Get behind me Satan!
Don’t you know that the Apostle Paul gave us a model of how to understand what is happening to us? What is going on inside of us? How even as the old Adam remains and our sinful impulses are not fully eliminated until the grave that we have newness of life in Jesus Christ?
He saves us from this body of death!
Don’t you know that God not only declares me to be righteous – perfect in His sight! – because of His own beloved Son but that He also continues to forgive and strengthen me, so that I have the desire and power to live a holy life in His presence?