In his book Love in Action, Bob Moeller tells of a visit with a man who only had days to live.
When we got onto the topic of his children, his expression changed from pleasant and cheerful to one of anguish and pain. ‘Bob, all my children are grown now. I had hoped that as adults they might become better friends. Instead, it seems they are always finding something to fight about. I suspect that somehow his sad expression mirrors the sorrow in the face of our Heavenly Father when he looks down and sees his children bicker and argue with one another. There is something terribly wrong, and even unnatural, about a family that is at war with itself. That’s particularly true when that family is the family of God…
No loving father can watch his children belittle, attack, and say hateful things to one another without feeling deep and profound grief. Imagine how much sorrow the perfect heart of our heavenly Father feels when he sees his children clash and war with one another in the church.[i]
The true essence and value of life comes from the kind of relationships we have. We are all born into a family or else by God’s grace we have been chosen through adoption. What is true in the natural realm is equally true in the spiritual realm. We are born again and adopted into God’s forever family, which is called the church. It is our eternal family. The church is more than an organization, it is a living organism. It is relational in nature, more like an extended family. Like all relationships, there are moments when they are threatened. How do we respond? What are some of the aspects in creating healthy relationships, families and communities of faith? We know that the enemy of our soul is always trying to stir up discord. We realize that strife, division, unforgiveness and bitterness leave casualties. Here in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18 we discover three areas of where we can move from conflict to community.
THE FIRST AREA OF RELATIONSHIP IN MOVING FROM CONFLICT TO COMMUNITY IS WITH THOSE IN LEADERSHIP
We can apply this to leadership in any realm, but the focus from our text will be in the area of spiritual leadership. There are two extremes that believers can fall prey to. We can have an unquestioned devotion to leaders on the one hand, and the continual challenging of leaders on the other. The first is to put leaders on a pedestal. The other is to constantly challenge and question everything, making the job of leadership extremely difficult. God is the one who created the gift of leadership to serve others. In the spiritual realm, spiritual leaders should be mature believers but that does not mean they are without faults. As you read through the Scriptures you find glaring sins in the lives of such men as Abraham, who lied about his relationship with his wife, and Moses, who committed murder in trying to protect an abused Israelites. We see King David, who committed adultery and then had the woman’s husband murdered in battle; and yes, Peter, who denied knowing Jesus, to name a few examples. However, God used these specific people in significant ways. Their lives are an incredible example of faith and trust in God.
The other extreme is to depreciate leaders and suggest that they are not needed. While it is true that everyone has equal value in the eyes of God, there are those that God raises up as leaders to help His people. In other words, God gives different believers different functions in His family. Just like there are parents in an earthly family that have greater authority and responsibility, so there are those who are involved in spiritual parenting in the church. Let’s remember that it is God who gives the gift of leadership to the church.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.[ii]
The apostle Peter points out that God, the great Shepherd of our souls did appoint under-shepherds to care for His flock and he admonishes them regarding their responsibility.
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.[iii]
So what should the proper attitude be toward Christian or spiritual leaders?
A. First, followers are told to appreciate those who God has called to be overseers and who admonish you.
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you.[iv]
The word acknowledge, or as some other translations use respect, is the idea to know from experience those who work hard among you in the area of spiritual care. It is the idea of recognizing these individuals by demonstrating appreciation and respect. Faithful spiritual leaders are those who are described as ‘those who work hard among you.’ Often the assumption is that ministry is an easy vocation. However, Paul quickly erases that idea. The word he uses for work is the same work used for manual labor. John Stott states it like this,
It means to toil, strive, struggle, and to grow weary in doing so. It conjures up the pictures of rippling muscles and pouring sweat. Paul applies it to farm laborers and to the physical exertions in his own tent-making. But he also used it in relations to his own apostolic labors, to the hard work of his colleagues, and to those who ‘labor in preaching and teaching.’[v]
B. We are to hold them in loving regard.
Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.[vi]
This holding in love comes not as a result of their personalities, but rather because of the nature and demands of the work they do on behalf of the people. The ministry of the word, the caring of souls the wearying demands of people in need. When Jesus was going through a time of grief over the loss of John the Baptist, he sought solitude, but the crowds followed him into that solitary place. What was Jesus’ response? “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14).” That’s the context of the feeding of the five thousand. Then Jesus feeds them before sending them away. It is an amazing story of putting others’ needs ahead of His own needs. Only then did Jesus finally have time alone with His heavenly Father to pour out His own grief at the loss of John.
C. Finally, we are told to live in harmonious relationship with others.
We are then told to live in peace with each other. When believers are contending, it makes leading the church far more difficult. Conflict is a terrible environment to live in. One source of conflict in church is between pastoral leaders and people. However, whenever you find a loving relationship between the pastor and the people, and between the people themselves, you find a place of blessing and peace. Listen to the blessing that unity brings in relationships.
How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robes.[vii]
We know how wonderful peace and harmony are in relationships. It is described here as good and pleasant. Then the Psalmist uses some interesting analogies. Aaron was the High Priest that came into the presence of God on behalf of God’s people. The oil represents the anointing that separated him for His calling. Oil represents God’s empowering presence being released into the lives of people. When we are living in unity it releases God’s empowering presence to function in our lives and churches. The Psalmist concludes that where there is unity in relationships there is incredible blessings.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows blessing, even life forevermore.[viii]
Hermon was the name of a significant mountain to the north. It was where the Jordan river originated. It is actually the primary source of water for the nation. Mount Zion is one of the mountains where the city of Jerusalem is nestled. The Psalmist is pointing out that where there is unity among people it is like life giving water nourishing people from a distance. Unity brings life and refreshment. No wonder the enemy of our soul battles to foster strife, contention and division in relationships. That is his primary means of robbing and destroying our effectiveness as believers. Jesus pointed this out in Matthew 12:25b “…Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. One translation reads, every kingdom and household divided against itself will be destroyed. We are constantly witnessing the tragedy of destroyed relationships in families, in churches, and in nations. So how do we handle the conflicts?
THE SECOND AREA OF RELATIONSHIP IN MOVING FROM CONFLICT TO COMMUNITY IS WITH FELLOW BELIEVERS
This idea of living in harmony or peace with each other extends beyond the relationship between the people and their leaders. It was to be a responsibility for all to express this love and care towards each other. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, ‘Life Together’, relates:
The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. …It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace. The imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible community is grace.
…The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to a believer.[ix]
Yet what makes for peace? For we know that among human beings there is often strife. Yet, when we come to Christ, He is the One that brings peace! Jesus broke down the racial and theological divide between Jews and Gentiles.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.[x]
Peace is found in contenders surrendering to the prince of peace, Jesus Christ, and responding in obedience to His word and purposes for their lives. Listen to how practical the apostle Paul’s instructions are to these believers at Thessalonica.
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle, and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
Make sure nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and to everyone else.[xi]
Here in our text we find five areas listed that we need to focus our attention on in order to have healthy relationships. We must remind ourselves of the great grace of living in harmonious relationships as believers. How do we handle difficult people? How can we have healthy and meaningful relationships?
A. The first thing we need to consider is to warn those who were causing disorder.
The NIV translates it, the idle. What did Paul mean by this? Was he speaking to those who were not engaged and involved?
Those who are in need of this admonition are the idle (ataktous), who are not the lazy but rather those who are ‘disorderly’ or ‘undisciplined’ in the community.[xii]
Another translation called them the unruly. The Greek term was a military one that meant that they were out of step. John MacArthur explains how the challenge with this particular group of struggling sheep needs our help.
“Such are those who fail to serve the church with their spiritual gifts, give the church a portion of their wealth, or support the church’s leadership. They may have been unsupportive because they did not care, or because they were angry, rebellious, and contentious. Such people, if not dealt with tend to become bitter. They can become criticizing benchwarmers and eventually rebels who undermine church leadership to justify their insubordination. Both are obviously divisive.[xiii]
What are we to do with this group? Warn them of the danger of their attitudes and actions.
B. The second group that needed help were the disheartened or those who were discouraged and who were in danger of giving up.
This group are those who are literally of a small soul. They are not courageous, and want to step away, give up and are afraid of the battles and challenges that present themselves in difficult moments. We all need to be reminded that we must be courageous. We are called to be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power (cf. Ephesians 6:10).
C. The third group are the weak.
This would include those who were physically sick, to those who were struggling emotionally and spiritually. These are often battling doubts. These believers are more susceptible to error and have an overly sensitive conscience. The apostle Paul had also spoken to the church at Rome addressed some of the issues that the weak were struggling with.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.
Each of us should please his neighbors for their good, to build them up.[xiv]
Earlier in that letter, Paul had described the weak as those who had very strict scruples with regard to external things. The weak in faith were those who wouldn’t eat meat or considered one day more sacred than others.
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.
One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.
The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.[xv]
What is the principle that God’s word is teaching us here? We need to be more accepting of those we disagree with. We need to support one another, rather than attack each other.
D. The fourth group are the struggling believers.
This fourth group are those who live in crisis management. They are constantly going from one problem to another. How many know that to live in harmony requires huge doses of acceptance and patience with others. Some believers grow weary of trying to help these struggling saints. We must resist the temptation to become impatient with them.
E. The final group are those who sin against us.
These are the most difficult to deal with, especially when they take advantage of us or those we love. We are told to live a life of forbearance and forgiveness, rather than retaliation. We are to be kind. We are to overcome evil by doing good.
Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.[xvi]
Paul includes not only other believers but others in the community who have wronged them. Remember they were experiencing persecution.
Moreover, within the church itself there were members who did not completely conform to the moral standards of the community and who even took advantage of fellow believers, (4:3-8, 5:14a), presenting another temptation to those affected to pay back wrong for wrong instead of correcting them for their benefit and building them up.[xvii]
It is one thing to forgive those who do not know better, but it seems it is harder when we think that these people are fellow believers and they should know better. Where it speaks of striving to do good, this is more than just an effort, rather the force of the word means to pursue and make a diligent effort to do good. In other words, do good to those who don’t deserve it.
FINALLY, THE THIRD AREA OF RELATIONSHIP THAT MOVES US FROM CONFLICT TO COMMUNITY IS WITH GOD
How do we relate to Him? Our response to God ought to be worship. So what does real worship look like? Jesus talked about worship and defined it’s elements in John 4:24 when we was speaking to the Samaritan woman. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24).” In spirit speaks of an internal, intimate, and active response to God rather than ritual or mere formalism. In truth speaks of a right understanding as to the nature of God, rather than a distorted concept fashioned after our own image or needs. Here the apostle Paul speaks of the characteristics that we collectively relate to God. This stands in contrast to our individualistic approach. Here we find a three part expression that reflects God’s will for us at all times and in all circumstances in relationship to Him. This is the proper way to relate to God. Joyfully because of Who He is and what He has and will do. Prayerfully, because He cares for us, and finally thankfully, which should reflect the heart of deep appreciation for Him.
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.[xviii]
A. Be joyful always.
What is the idea behind this exhortation, this challenge to appropriate joy in our live?. This is not a denial of difficulty, suffering or grief.
This joy should always be in our lives, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. The apostles never encourage believers to deny that adversity brings sadness or grief, but they recognize that in the midst of the most agonizing situations the presence of God through his Spirit can infuse the soul with hope and the heart with joy.[xix]
Joy is much more than an emotion, it is a state of mind, knowing that God will see us through. The apostle Paul certainly had his share of painful moments. Yet as he describes himself in these moments, he states it this way: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Corinthians 6:10).” The amazing paradox of genuine Biblical faith is that we can have joy in times of sorrow. The only thing that will diminish joy in our lives is our personal sin.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.[xx]
What is Paul saying? Simply that God’s purposes are being worked out regardless of what life circumstances we are facing as a child of God. Ultimately, these negative things will help us become more like Him. Not only will we be ultimately blessed, but many others will be as well. We know that in God’s presence there is joy, and that joy brings strength. “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10b).”
B. Pray Continually.
The idea isn’t that we are praying constantly, but that we never stop praying. Prayer is a way of life. We never give up. Jesus, Himself encourages us to never stop praying. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1).” Our prayer is an expression of our hope, our trust, our confidence in God who is able to hear our cry and answer our prayer. Real praying begins with a confidence in God for His grace. We don’t come based on our merit, rather we come in our times of need for help. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16).”
C. Give thanks always.
Gratitude is the constant attitude of a true believer. Gratitude is the attitude that reveals whether we are trusting God and seeing God caring for our needs. Complaining, grumbling, and constantly being dissatisfied reflect a heart that really does not know or trust God. It is the heart of an unregenerated soul. The apostle Paul warned against this sinful state of mind to the Corinthian church by using the Israelites’ wanderings through the wilderness as an example.
And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel.
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.[xxi]
These elements of being joyful, prayerfully and thankful are expressions of God’s will in a person’s life.
How do we create and maintain healthy relationships in God’s family? It begins with our attitudes toward those God set over us as leaders. Do we appreciate them for the work that they do? It should be a mutually loving relationship where harmony exists. Between believers, we need to warn those who are causing disorder, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with the struggling, and forgive and show kindness to those who are straying. Our ultimate relationship is with our heavenly father. When we live a life of joy, in prayerful communion with Him filled with thanksgiving and gratitude, we fulfill His will for our lives. These expressions are demonstrations of our deep love and confidence in Him regardless of our outward challenges and situations in life. These practical steps move us from conflicted relationships to healthy community.
[i] Bob Moeller, Love in Action, (Sisters, Or: Multnomah Press, 1994), 37.
[ii] Ephesians 4:11-12, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] 1 Peter 5:2.
[iv] 1 Thessalonians 5:12.
[v] John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, The Bible Speaks Today, (Downers Grove: IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1994), 119.
[vi] 1 Thessalonians 5:13.
[vii] Psalm 133:1-2.
[viii] Psalm 133:3.
[ix] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Life Together,’ (Minneapolis, Mn: Fortress Press, 1996), 27-29.
[x] Ephesians 2:14.
[xi] 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15.
[xii] Gene Green, The Letters To The Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 253.
[xiii] John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2002), 177.
[xiv] Romans 15:1-2.
[xv] Romans 14:1-3.
[xvi] 1 Thessalonians 5:15.
[xvii] Gene Green, The Letters To The Thessalonians, 255.
[xviii] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
[xix] Gene Green, The Letters To The Thessalonians, 258.
[xx] Romans 8:28.
[xxi] 1 Corinthians 10:10-11.