My title today is 'Doing Good'. And I'm going to assume that you'd like to be a good person. In fact when I thought about that I realised that we can't take that for granted about one another. There can't be many people who positively decide, "I want to be a bad person". But other self-centred goals for our lives can so shape our thinking that any aim to be a good person is relegated out of sight. Living like that is effectively deciding that you don't want to be a good person. However, when Jesus Christ takes hold of our lives he does shift loving God and loving other people to the centre of our attention. And he does plant within us a desire to be good. So, as I said, I'm going to assume that you'd like to be a good person. What, then, is a good person like?
That's what we're thinking about today. We're on the final leg of our run through the apostle Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians – so if you're not there already please turn to 1 Thessalonians 5.12-28. This section does focus on how we are to live our lives, but we'll go way off course here if we're not absolutely clear that the Christian life is first of all about having good done to us by God. Only when we've been on the receiving end of the good that God the Father does to us through his Son Jesus and by his Holy Spirit can we do good in a way that pleases our heavenly Father. So in the light of that, and given that this is our last go at 1 Thessalonians, before we go any further let's do a bit of revision on the overall thrust of this letter. The whole thing's only two and half pages, so please turn back a page to the start of the letter, and follow this with me. In 1 Thessalonians 1.5 the apostle Paul reminds this young Thessalonian church:
"…our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction."
So the apostle Paul preached the gospel of Christ to them and, because of the work of the Holy Spirit within them, they accepted it. What did that look like? He expands on that in verses 9-10, where he describes the change that overcame them:
"…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come."
And then in the light of that supernatural transformation, the apostle urged them to live in a way that was worthy of the living God who had saved and called them through Christ. So 1 Thessalonians 2.12:
"…we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory."
Paul is thankful that that's exactly what they've begun to do. And he wants them to do what they're doing more and more. 1 Thessalonians 4.1:
"…we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more."
And as Jon Teasdale was teaching us a fortnight ago, these new lives are lived in the light of the fact that Jesus is going to return. 1 Thessalonians 5.2:
"…the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night..."
But, verse 4:
"…you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief."
And he urges them to put on faith and love and the hope of salvation. Therefore (1 Thessalonians 5.11, just before our passage):
"…encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing."
There it is again: carry on doing what you are doing, but do it more and more. You're not alone in this. Strengthen one another in your living for Christ as you wait for his return.
So then in this final section of his letter Paul spells out in some quick-fire exhortations what this good life should look like. He's going to tell us how we should live. But as we've seen, let's not be under any illusions. This is a supernatural, gospel-driven life. This is not just trying to be good. This is living out the life for which we have been chosen by the Father; which has been made possible through the death and resurrection of the Son; and for which we are given power by the Holy Spirit.
How then should we live? I have three main headings, which attempt to put in a nutshell the message of the three main sections of our passage.
1. Keep working hard to encourage and strengthen those around you.
This is 1 Thessalonians 5.12-16. And remember this is God's word written. This is God talking to us through his servant the apostle. Here are those verses:
"We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labour 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 faint-hearted, 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."
This is a word-picture of a highly attractive community of men and women. Isn't this the kind of community, the kind of extended family, that we'd like to belong to? And the heart of Paul's call is there at the end of verse 13:
"Be at peace among yourselves."
The church should be a peaceful community. But this is an active peace – a peace that requires hard work if it's going to be maintained. And that hard work is demanded of every member of the community. We are all responsible for the peace of our fellowship. We all play a part in creating and preserving that peace. We all have the capacity to damage it if we ignore this call. Peace in a large family is very easily disrupted. It is constantly under threat. So Paul has some beautiful and powerful pastoral wisdom for us here, about all the multiple relationships that make up our church life. For one thing he says have a high regard for those who lead you faithfully (verse 12):
"…respect those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, … esteem them very highly in love because of their work."
There's something I would never get round to preaching if we didn't work systematically through Bible books! But don't miss that this definitely cuts both ways. Those with positions of responsibility in the church are clearly expected to earn this respect and esteem. They are to be labouring and working and teaching and saying the unpopular thing when necessary. What is more, we all have those over us and those under us in the life of the church at different times – those for whom we have responsibility, and those to whom we are responsible in one way or another. And in the thick of that we are to be working hard for one another, and esteeming one another – because we love one another in Christ. That is the way of peace.
And why does God's word stress this? Surely because we can all see the flaws and the weaknesses and the sins of those over us, and it is therefore all too easy and too tempting to lose respect and start despising, to lose esteem and stop loving. And that is the end of a peaceful community. That is not living in a way that is worthy of our calling and of Christ who laid down his life for us. Then, moving on, Paul says give the right kind of encouragement to each person according to their need. Verse 14:
"…admonish the idle, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all."
What an astonishingly powerful verse that is. What a difference it would make if we lived consistently in this way. Clearly in the mind of Christ we are all responsible for one another's growth in holiness and for encouraging one another in our discipleship. And we all test one another's patience to what would be breaking point if it weren't for the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit among us. And we are to think about one another and ask ourselves what kind of encouragement each of us needs – because it will vary.
One person really needs a strong talking to, because they're thick-skinned and stubborn and only a blunt approach will get through – "admonish the idle". Another person would be crushed if they were spoken to in that way, and they need a gentle and encouraging word to keep them going when the way is hard and they doubt whether they can keep going – "encourage the faint-hearted". Another person needs not only words but also practical help because they simply cannot manage on their own at the moment – "help the weak".
And of course any one of us will move between these categories – sometimes needing a rebuke, sometimes an encouraging word, sometimes needing someone alongside us carrying some of the load. So we need to be discerning in our care for one another, thoughtful about what those around us need in their walk with Christ. And that means that we need our focus to be on one another, not on ourselves. And that's hard. That needs continual work. It needs Christ-like, Spirit empowered patience – "be patient with them all". It needs daily deliberate acts of the will to turn away from evil in our dealings with one another, and to do good. And that's the third thing Paul says in this section, that really sums it all up. Always seek to do good to everyone. 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 there are two possibilities in the end. Either there's a vicious circle of someone doing something bad to us and us doing something just as bad or even worse back to them. And that's just destructive for both. Or we can break the cycle and return evil with good, which blesses not only the one who wronged you but also you. That is the way of love. And that, God says to us, is how we should be living. And not sometimes. But always, and with everyone – not just our brothers and sisters in Christ, but everyone – and in every circumstance. Is that a tall order? It certainly is. No wonder we need the power of the Holy Spirit. So that's the first thing. Keep working hard to encourage and strengthen those around you.
2. Keep on working at your relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is 1 Thessalonians 5.16-22, and I want us to notice the Trinitarian nature of what Paul says here. God is three in one and one in three, and we need to relate to all three persons appropriately. Look out for Father, Son and Spirit in these verses:
"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."
Talk to God the Father continually: giving thanks as you look back; asking for what is needed as you look around; rejoicing as you look ahead. We can always, without fail, be thankful as we look back because nothing can change the facts of what God has done for us in Jesus. We can always, without fail, bring the needs we see around us to the Father in prayer because the way to his throne is now wide open through faith in Christ. We can always, without fail, have hope as we look to the future because we know that Jesus will one day return to bring in his Kingdom. And that all means that deep down, whatever our present circumstances, we can always, without fail, rejoice. In fact not only can we, but we are commanded to rejoice. "Rejoice always." At the root of God's call to us to be doing good always to all people is the command to rejoice always. Joy is the fuel of the Christian life. Then listen to God the Holy Spirit carefully – test everything you hear against the Scriptures. Verses 19-21:
"Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything…"
To prophesy is to say something in the name of God. A prophecy claims to be a word from God – "this is what God is saying." When we hear that claim we are not simply to scoff – far from it, because we are always to be attentive to the voice of God. But we are to test it, to see whether the claim is true. How do we do that? By seeing whether what is said is true to what Scripture says, because we know that the Scriptures are the voice of God. What the Bible says is what God says. Any word that is not in line with what the Bible says is a false prophecy and should be rejected. Any word that is neither confirmed by nor contradicted by the Bible should be regarded as not a word from God but a word from man and weighed and heard with discernment accordingly. Any word that is in line with what the Bible says is true and should be received as God speaking. So listen to God the Holy Spirit carefully. Then follow God the Son consistently: don't do what's wrong; do what's right. Verse 22:
"Abstain from every form of evil."
There is that call again, put in negative form. Always do good – never evil – to everyone in all circumstances. There is only one sinless, perfect man, and that is Jesus. But that's what we're called to be – Christ-like. And if we're going to be Christ-like, then we have to be growing in ever closer fellowship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then finally:
3. God will keep working to bring you safely through to the day Jesus returns.
This is verses 23-24. Now we began with a recognition that this call to goodness and holiness is a call to a supernatural, gospel-driven life. It is not just us trying to be good by ourselves. This is living out the life for which we have been chosen by the Father; which has been made possible through the death and resurrection of the Son; and for which we are given power by the Holy Spirit. So what makes it possible for us to give ourselves fully to doing good and being good is the promise that God will make it happen. Look, then, at how the apostle draws to a close here in verses 23-24:
"Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you [that is, make you like Jesus] 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."
Paul's prayer in verse 23 that they – and we – will become totally Christ-like is prayed with absolute confidence because of what's in verse 24. What's that? God is faithful to his promise. And he will certainly and completely do this work in you until the day when Jesus returns and the work is done. "He will surely do it."
This is God speaking to us. This is God telling us that he will surely do it. So be full of hope. Work at doing good to everyone at all times, because God is at work in you, making you good, like Jesus, for his glory.