My Favorite Benediction

In my younger days, I thought the benediction just marked the end of the worship service. Perhaps the musicians needed a cue to prepare for the postlude.

Now, the benediction is one of my favorite parts of Sunday morning. I desperately need the blessing of the Lord, and I hunger for it as the worship service winds down. I know some of what Jacob felt, when he would not let the angel go without a blessing (Gen 32:22–32).

Many pastors use the familiar passage from Numbers 6 (verses 24–26) to bless the people of God. My favorite benediction comes at the end of 1 Thessalonians.

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. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24)

You may feel weary as you read this today, but by meditating on this blessing you may find just the encouragement you need.

For Sanctification

Paul begins by praying that God would sanctify his friends. If we’re paying attention to the context of this passage, this request is no surprise at all.

Paul has spent most of his letter encouraging the Thessalonians in their sanctification—that is, their growth and maturity as followers of Jesus. He has remarked how far they have come, and he has urged them to press on still more. (See 1 Thess 1:2–102:13–163:64:1–125:11.)

This prayer for God to sanctify his people is a delightful and fitting summary of the letter.

The God of Peace

If sanctification is an unsurprising topic, the title used for God may be less expected. We may not balk at opening the Bible and reading about “the God of peace,” but why does Paul use it here when praying about sanctification?

I usually connect peace with God to conversion and adoption. When my soul has a new orientation and master, I am no longer at war with my maker.

Yet, as any Christian knows, there are still “warring members” within us—territory within our minds and hearts that is not completely aligned with the Lord’s desires. As we are sanctified, our wills and loves change and therefore the objective peace we have becomes more fully realized throughout our person. We offer less resistance to what is best for us and we experience more peace with God.

It is therefore appropriate that “the God of peace” is the one who sanctifies us—he changes our rebellion into glad submission and eager friendship with our master.

Entirely Changed

As sanctification is progressive—that is, it happens slowly and not all at once—it makes sense that Paul would ask for God to sanctify his friends “completely.” The work has begun but is not yet finished.

Paul asks that God would keep their “whole spirit and soul and body” blameless. This phrase is Paul’s head-to-toe description of a person.

There are many dark corridors, locked closets, and dusty crawlspaces in the sprawling estate of our hearts. The remodeling of the Holy Spirit takes time and, often, suffering. But make no mistake—the goal is a gleaming, beautiful, renovated home.

Look to His Coming

The coming of the Lord is a pervasive theme in 1 Thessalonians, so it is no surprise we see it in this final benediction. Paul touches on this topic at least once in each chapter of the letter!

This is not just a quirk of Paul’s personality. The coming of the Lord should command our attention and be a great source of our hope. After all, that coming will usher in the time when we will be together with the Lord forever (1 Thess 4:17). All of the promises of God will come together to be fulfilled as we finally and eternally enjoy his unmediated presence.

So Paul prays that God would keep his friends blameless for that coming. He wants them to enjoy this most joyful occasion, and not to cower in fear when thinking of that day (1 Thess 5:4–6).

Hope in God

Paul ends this blessing by pointing back to God.

Paul writes that God is the one who calls them. He is the originator of their faith, bringing them out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9). And this same God who calls is faithful. He is sturdy and sure and unwavering. We do not have to guess whether he will continue to keep his promises—he will love his people perfectly, forever.

And finally, God will surely do it. That is, God will sanctify his people completely and he will keep his people blameless for the coming of Jesus. Paul has every confidence to trust in God this way, and his blessing urges us toward similar trust.

Blessing Indeed

Are you feeling stalled in your Christian growth? Frustrated by habitual sins and foolish decisions? Discouraged and in need of hope? Read this blessing, meditate on it, and pray it for you and for your friends.

Take comfort in the one who calls you, the one who is faithful, the one who himself will surely prepare you for heaven. This is blessing indeed.

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The Myth of the Always-Happy Christian

I had a friend once with a great smile. Her smile completely transformed her face, showing genuine joy in every feature.

She told me that her happiness was the occasion for many conversations about Jesus. People would observe her near-constant smile and ask her why she was so happy. And she would mention the joy the Lord brought to her life.

The idea of joy-as-Christian-testimony was powerful and pervasive, at least in my circles in the late 1990s. Jesus makes us happy, after all, and that happiness can point others to him.

I never heard much about other emotions, however. The implied message was that we don’t think sadness, grief, or even middle-of-the-road okayness are, well, okay. When Christians think the best or only way to bear testimony to the world is to be constantly smiling, sadness feels like failure. And that creates a culture in which we hide and suppress sadness and end up with little ability to process the harder, painful, very real emotions that come along with normal life under the sun.

Emotional Discipleship

Not all learning is academic, and not all discipleship is doctrinal. Growing as a disciple of Jesus means walking in his ways. This surely includes knowledge about God, salvation, the church, and the future. But Jesus was a full man, not just a teacher. We have not been redeemed and called by a systematic theology textbook.

I was recently listening to Mike Cosper interview Tish Harrison Warren on an episode of the Cultivated podcast. They were discussing Warren’s new book, Prayer in the Night, just released in January. It was a stimulating, thoughtful conversation. (Note: I have not yet read this book.)

In the course of the interview, Cosper talked about seeing some of his friends in ministry crushed by disappointment and sadness. These friends had been discipled in one way, but they lacked what he called “emotional discipleship.” They didn’t have a way to handle or process suffering, tragedy, or even their own sin.

That rang true. I have studied the Bible a lot and learned a good deal of theology. But I have not heard or thought much about growing in the way my emotional life glorifies God.

Recovering Lament

Part of growing in our emotional maturity will be learning to process grief and sorrow, sin and sadness. Toward this end, I’ve been learning about the Christian practice of lament. (One very helpful resource for me has been Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy.)

Modern Christians generally avoid lament because it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Those within the church are more likely to try to find the bright side of a tragedy than to enter into mourning with a friend. We look for a deeper meanings, we assure the one who is suffering that things will get better, we ask, What is God teaching you through this?

As I learn more about lament, I see the need for Christians to embrace tension, to not be so obsessed with resolving the chord. (Vroegop calls lament “a minor key language for suffering,” which seems about right.) The goodness of God and the sadness of life can feel like giant waves colliding in the sea, and while we want quiet waters, smoothing over all turbulence as quickly as possible is not a healthy pursuit.

Yes, in the end—at the end of the age—all will be put right. But all is not right now, and it is okay to feel and confess that. Jesus did this very thing! The Psalms also are filled with lament, some of which were on Jesus’ lips in his final hours.

We may not always have answers, but we do have God. This is not an attempt to sneak in a silver lining. If we embrace the reality of God’s presence with his people—not as a magic elixir which eliminates all sorrow, but as a comfort and help and sign of love in the midst of sorrow—we may have a start on emotional discipleship.

Because we know the One who holds all things, and because we know he is loving and good, we have hope. And because we have hope, we can learn to grieve and to weep with those who weep.

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In Praise of Poetry

I’m a latecomer to poetry. I had to read and write my fair share in high school and college, but I put little effort into understanding and appreciating poetry. Any attempts to write on my part were too earnest by half and dripping with nostalgia.

Since college, though, I’ve changed, gradually. And over the past few years, I’ve returned to poetry with a delight that just wasn’t there in my younger days.

Let Me Count the Ways

I love the care with which poets must choose their words. There’s great satisfaction in finding a good word in the perfect setting. I enjoy the way skillful poets fit words together—to complement, enhance, or contrast individual meanings.

The sounds of poetry are as varied as the poets who conduct that orchestra. A good rhyme is wonderful, sure, but the pleasure of sound in poetry soars high above rhyme. I love to read poets who have a command of the language—they mix complementary sounds, they raise hints and echoes, they have studied how neighboring words and phrases can please or disturb a reader’s mind and mouth.

The rhythm of poetry is perhaps what I understood least in my younger days. If it wasn’t a well-known poetic form, we didn’t mention rhythm. But I’m now admiring the skill of poets who control my reading speed with word length and syllable distribution. Specific letters and sounds help regulate how quickly I digest a line or a stanza, and in this way a skilled poet can focus my attention on themes that require deeper meditation.

Books are so often better than movies because of the differences in images. What books describe and leave for the imagination, movies make explicit. Poetry often exceeds prose for the same reason. Poems are rich in imagery, but they evoke pictures and emotions that are far more pleasing than a description in prose. A skillful comparison or analogy—a basic currency in poetry—is deeply satisfying.

A Recommendation

I was delighted to learn of the work of Malcolm Guite last year. Guite is a Christian poet who is especially taken with the sonnet.

I used his Advent book of poetry to great advantage last December, and I plan to begin his Lenten book later this month. These books contain some of his original work, but they feature more prominently the work of other poets with short commentary. Guite’s love for language and poetry burst off the page, and I’ve learned much from his explanations.

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Resisting Revenge is a Whole-Church Effort

Most of the Bible is addressed to groups of people, not individuals. And while collective commands have clear implications for individuals, the corporate nature matters.

Many modern Christians have been breathing individualistic air for years, with far-reaching consequences. But we must remember the communal nature of the Bible if we are to live faithfully as God’s people.

A Community Standard

There’s a verse in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church that highlights this point.

See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)

The context, as always, is important—this verse falls in the middle of several commands Paul gives to this church. That a group is addressed is obvious, both in verse 15 itself as well as in the presence of “brothers” in verses 12 and 14 and “yourselves” in verse 13.

Note that the command here is not simply “don’t repay evil for evil.” Rather, “See that no one repays evil for evil.” Paul prohibits revenge for each person, but he also makes every individual responsible for the obedience of others. Each person is charged with maintaining the no-retaliation standard in the community.

It’s natural to balk here. I have enough trouble obeying God myself. How can I be responsible for others?

We turn back to the passage for the answer. We are to respect our church leaders and “esteem them very highly in love” (verses 12–13). Giving proper love and encouragement to our elders is essential for the health of the church.

Additionally, we are to “be at peace” among ourselves (verse 13). And there is a summary of sorts at the end of verse 15: “always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” If we are all seeking to do good for everyone, no one will be repaying evil for evil.

Becoming Like God

A church’s reputation and testimony can be damaged by one flagrant or unrepentant sinner. But the church acting together in love can say glorious things about God.

As a local church body obeys this no-revenge command, they become more and more like their patient, saving God. Quite simply, God does not repay evil for evil! Rather he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). God’s patience and forbearance are such that we were reconciled to God while we were his enemies (Romans 5:10).

God is just, but his is a patient justice. He will repay, but he offers mercy. In fact, our forbearance with others must be based upon the certainty of God’s justice (see Romans 12:19).

In some ways, it’s in our (fallen) nature to seek revenge. When we are injured, we want to nurture the internal wound until just the right moment to visit an equal or greater injury in return.

But as we practice forgiveness and reconciliation, fueled by the forgiveness we’ve received in Christ, the church can offer (and point to) a balm the world desperately needs. That balm is the very presence of God.

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10)

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Sin, Grief, and Home

I’ve been rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books to prepare for the latest installment, Jack, which was published in the fall. I recently finished the second volume, Home.

This book is an extended meditation on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Yet there’s a twist in this retelling.

In the parable, the son returns, there is a big party, and the focus shifts to the older son and his bitterness. In Robinson’s Home, Jack (the son) returns, but he cannot stay. There is too much in his past that haunts his old house, town, and family for him to remain.

Unavoidable Grief

Home made me ponder the grief of the sinner in new ways. Jack made so many mistakes in his youth that his reputation hangs like a fog in the town. And he feels it most of all.

Jack’s father has always longed for his son’s return—they haven’t seen each other for twenty years. And now that the father is dying, this homecoming seems like the happy ending so many have wanted. It looks like the parable.

But Jack can’t stay. He cannot face his siblings and their families as they gather to say goodbye. He cannot be present among so many people to whom he is so notorious.

As a reader, I was rooting for Jack. His life had been hard—though this hardness was chiefly due to his choices, the weight and resistance of a difficult life is still worth grieving. I wanted Jack to stay and turn the corner. I wanted good things for him. But he embodied a restlessness born of shame and sadness, and staying would intensify those emotions in a way that was unbearable.

The ideal of home is precious—a place where we are safe, provided for, and loved beyond questioning. And yet in this life, this ideal is too far away for some. We are all prone to wander, and for some this is literal.

Empathy

Robinson’s writing is wonderful and her characters are vivid. If growing in empathy is one worthy reason (among many) to read fiction, Home is a case study. I saw the world from the perspectives of three characters with whom I have little in common.

Home gave me more to ponder than most of the fiction I’ve read in the past year or two.

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A Contrast of Kings at Christmas

Secular Christmas scenes are full of snow, wreaths, lights, and cookies. The roaring fires and flannel pajamas that appear on so many cards paint the holiday as one of coziness and warmth.

While there’s nothing wrong with these seasonal elements, none of them capture the biblical reality. Christmas is the time to rejoice in the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus.

But even in the Bible, Jesus’s birth was not an occasion for universal joy. While there was great celebration, the Christmas narratives are also serious, dark, and cautionary.

Herod the King

The second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel offers a stark contrast. Right from the beginning, we read that in the days of Herod the king the wise men came looking for the king of the Jews. This contrast seems intentional, as Matthew refers to Herod as “king” a total of three times (Matt 2:139).

While the wise men traveled a great distance to worship this new king (Matt 2:2), they went to Herod only for information. The wise men rejoiced when approaching the house where Jesus was, and they brought extravagant gifts, falling down in worship. Since God warned them away, the wise men didn’t even speak to Herod again.

Herod was “troubled” by this talk of a new king (Matt 2:3). The Jewish religious leaders reported that prophesies pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of a “ruler” who would “shepherd” the people of Israel (Matt 2:6). This was not good news for Herod.

Jesus the Child

The contrast between Herod and Jesus is heightened by the difference in their ages. Herod was an adult; Jesus had just been born. In fact, Jesus is referred to as a “child” nine times in this chapter.

Given the difference in physical ability and political power between Jesus and Herod, it seems bizarre that Herod was threatened by this baby. But Herod was so enraged when the wise men did not report back to him that he ordered the death of all male children in and around Bethlehem under two years old.

We should pause here and note the violence and devastation that Herod caused. His fear and his lust for power proved to be a murderous cocktail. These deaths were unspeakably cruel, selfish, and senseless, and they must have left Bethlehem residents horrified and empty with grief.

While Herod took drastic, human steps to eliminate Jesus, Matthew’s text shows us the supernatural elements used to honor and protect Jesus. The star that the wise men followed (“his star” in Matt 2:2) appeared both before and after their visit to Jerusalem (Matt 2:9–10) and led them directly to Jesus. Additionally, God acted through dreams to warn the wise men (Matt 2:12) and to direct Joseph and his young family (Matt 2:131922).

Finally, notice the role of prophecy in this chapter. In his birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:5–6), his exile to Egypt (Matt 2:17), and his settling in Nazareth (Matt 2:23), Jesus fulfilled what the prophets had spoken. On the other hand, the prophecy that Herod fulfilled was one of tears and lamentation (Matt 2:17–18).

Worship Christ, the Newborn King

Jesus was declared a king at his birth. And the contrast between Jesus and all other kings continued through his earthly life and beyond.

Because Jesus is the great, high king, he is a threat to all who hold power. God demands (and deserves) our undiluted worship, and this is a problem for anyone who craves any glory that belongs to God.

This is a warning to all in authority: Worship Jesus as the high king willingly while you can. One day every knee will bow, whether willingly or not (Phil 2:9–11). Your power is delegated power and should be used to help those around you to flourish.

And for everyone, this is a call to worship Jesus. He is no mere human king; he is the Lord of all. And as Lord, he shows himself to be vastly superior to Herod.

Though he is powerful and his authority is absolute, he is merciful and gentle. We have all grasped for power; we have all neglected and rejected proper worship. But king Jesus offers love and forgiveness for those who turn to him.

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How to Encourage Those Who Grieve

When a loved one dies, we feel more than just sadness. We know pain and despair and heartache in the center of our souls. Because we hurt, we can feel disoriented, asking the deepest questions of our lives.

We can understand, therefore, why Paul needed to write part of his first letter to the Thessalonians. These Christians were grieving and confused, wondering what had become of their friends and family members who had died.

In 1 Thess 4:13–18, Paul answered their questions and addressed their fears. In doing so, he has shown us just how much comfort comes from thinking rightly about the future.

Grief is Good

When Paul addressed his brothers in 1 Thess 4:13, he spoke about their grief.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thess 4:13)

Those outside of the church grieve, but they have no hope anchoring their grief. Paul wanted his friends to grieve with hope, and he gave specific grounds for that hope in the following verses.

Paul was no Stoic; he did not prohibit mourning. But our mourning should be done—like everything else in our lives—as Christians. We should not deny the natural emotion of grief, but our grief should be informed by the truth of God’s word.

Those Who Have Died Have Not Missed Out

From what Paul wrote in 1 Thess 4:15–17, it seems the Thessalonians were concerned that their loved ones might not experience the full joy of the coming of the Lord. Paul reassured them.

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord,that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess 4:15–17)

The dead in Christ will rise first. Then there will be a joyous reunion with loved ones (“caught up together,” verse 17) and with the Lord. Though we do not know the time nor all the specifics, there is great comfort in knowing what is to come.

For Those Who Believe in Jesus

It’s important to state this unpopular truth: Comfort in the coming of the Lord is reserved for those who believe in Jesus.

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess 4:14)

Though Paul did not write the entire Christian gospel here, he stated its central truth (“Jesus died and rose again”). In the first century, Christians were chiefly set apart by this belief in the work of Jesus. Paul wanted these believers to know that God’s work for their loved ones was not over. He will bring them with him when he comes.

Genuine Hope

We’ve all heard hollow words of hope and empty promises of comfort surrounding death. At least he’s in a better place. You’ll feel better, just give it time.

Paul had no time for faint hope. He pointed to the best, most lasting comfort there is—the eternal presence of God. How sweet to know that “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17).

Without interruption or distraction, we will be with our loving, faithful, glorious Lord. Our sin made us unworthy of being near him, but Jesus has brought us close and will, on the last day, take us closer still.

Encourage One Another

Paul ended this short portion of his letter with a command. “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess 4:18).

Far too often the coming of the Lord has been a source of controversy, division, and apprehension among Christians. Yet Paul sees this coming as a source of courage for the grieving.

We are often called as a church to love and comfort those who are mourning. And this passage tells us how we can pray for and speak to our grieving friends. We remind them of the gospel, we point to the future, and together we cling to the sure hope of eternal fellowship with the Lord.

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I Know God’s Will for You

The title of this post is true, you know. I know God’s will for you, sure as the shoes on my feet.

This isn’t a predictable message. It doesn’t involve your career, your home, or your spouse. It’s not about the next big decision in your life. (At least, not specifically.)

Are you jittery with suspense? Here’s the truth.

God’s will for you is your sanctification.

God’s Role in Your Sanctification

My revelation for you comes from God’s word. Specifically, Paul writes this to the Thessalonians: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3).

“Sanctification” sounds like a fancy theological word, but it’s easy enough to understand. It refers to our growth as Christians, the development of greater trust in the Lord, deeper love for God and our neighbors, fuller obedience, more thorough repentance. Sanctification is the process—sometimes a painful one—by which we resemble Jesus more and more.

It would be terrifying if sanctification were left entirely to us. But God is involved through and through, as Paul writes in his letter.

We should focus on pleasing God. Though we please God by observing his law, Paul directs our focus specifically to God. This is far more motivating than merely holding up a set of rules to obey.

Finally, then, brothers, we ask 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. (1 Thess 4:1)

Sanctification is a sign of knowing God. In this passage, Paul writes pointedly about sexual immorality, and he draws a contrast between Christians and Gentiles. He wants the Thessalonians to behave with “holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess 4:4–5). Knowing God should be the beginning of all ethical decisions and behavior.

The Lord is an avenger. Sanctification involves loving our neighbors, including our brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul warns his friends that they must not “transgress” or “wrong” their brother, “because the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thess 4:6). As we must remember that God is our father, we must not forget that he is also the judge.

God has called us for purity. When we sin, we go against the very purposes of God for us. “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thess 4:7). Purity and obedience are not easy, but it is comforting to know that we swim with the current of God’s will for us when we abstain from immorality.

God gives us his Holy Spirit. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who ignore his exhortations are in danger for their souls. “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess 4:8). The command for holiness comes from God, not from man. But God gives himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, to teach, strengthen, guide, and encourage us in this same holiness.

Abstain from Sexual Immorality

The specific issue Paul had in mind for the Thessalonians’ sanctification was sexual immorality. From what I understand, in many Greek cities in the first century, sexual immorality was rampant. Men rarely limited their sexual relationships to only their wife. It was vital that this church take a clear stand before their watching neighbors on this matter.

Through Paul, God’s command is to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess 4:3). This is not an area that calls for moderation; these Christians are not to wean themselves from this behavior like a man who wants to quit smoking. All sexually immoral behavior needs to be put aside, now.

This is not just an ancient message, of course. We need Christian sexual ethics just as much as the first century church. Because we are loved by God, adopted by him at the highest possible cost, we must live in a way that pleases him.

Excel Still More

Paul has a brilliant, loving way of bringing this command to his friends. He encourages them to keep doing what they’re doing, only more.

The Thessalonians know the instruction Paul gave them, how to walk with and please God, and they are doing it (1 Thess 4:1). Paul pleads with them to “do so more and more” (1 Thess 4:2).

Find more ways to love and obey. Do it more often, in more areas of your life, regarding more and more people. Search out more ways to repent. Don’t be content with a plateau.

This is good for us to hear. It is far too easy to fall into patterns that are at cross purposes for our Christian obedience.

Be encouraged, dear saints. When you hear that God’s will for you is your sanctification, you may be disappointed, because for too long “obedience” has come to make us think of a boring, humorless, locked-down life.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. What God commands is not only good for us, it’s best for us. And there is deep, lasting joy in aligning ourselves with God’s will and purpose for us.

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What Do We Want for Our Friends?

It is a sad fact of life that friends move away. How do you pray for such a friend? What do you want for them?

Perhaps you pray for their health, their family, or their church. You surely pray for specific requests they share.

And while these petitions are wonderful, the apostle Paul would like to add to our list.

Paul and the Thessalonians

Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians as an evangelist and pastor. But the warm nature of the letter shows that he also wrote to these people as friends.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:13, I notice at least five things Paul earnestly wanted for his friends.

Paul wanted to see them face-to-face

Paul was driven out of Thessalonica after a short period of ministry (Acts 17:1–10). He described it as being “torn away” from them, so great was his pain (1 Thess 2:17).

Though I’m sure Paul was grateful to send written communication, he longed to be with his friends in person. (See 1 Thess 2:17–183:63:10, and 3:11.) In fact, this is one of the dominant themes of the letter: Paul loved the Thessalonians, missed them, and wanted to see them!

The same is true for us. We can thank God for modern technology that lets us keep in touch with our distant friends while still longing and planning to see them in the flesh.

Paul wanted to strengthen and encourage them

Paul couldn’t stand the separation from the Thessalonians (1 Thess 3:1) so he sent Timothy to visit. Paul was willing to give up the help and fellowship of his dear friend so he could send a personal word to this church.

Timothy was sent, in part, to “strengthen and encourage” them in their faith (1 Thess 3:2, NASB). The Thessalonians were disheartened because they heard of Paul’s suffering (1 Thess 3:3–4). Paul wanted them to know this was an expected part of following Jesus (1 Thess 3:3).

Paul was not just acting as an apostle. This is a vital role friends play in each other’s lives. We remind each other of what is true, because we easily forget. We need our friends to point us back to God, to rehearse the good news of the gospel for us, to recall the hope we have for the future because of Jesus.

Paul wanted to hear about their faith

Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica for at least two purposes. In addition to encouraging this church, Paul wanted Timothy to bring back a report about their faith (1 Thess 3:5).

Paul was concerned that the disturbance the Thessalonians felt regarding Paul’s afflictions might tempt them to turn from the faith (1 Thess 3:5). This was no idle curiosity for Paul—he loved his friends so much that their standing with God was vital to him.

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you—for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. (1 Thess 3:6–8)

How often do we pray this simple prayer for our friends? Lord, strengthen them to stand firm.

Paul wanted to minister to them

As Paul thanked God for the joy the Thessalonians gave him, he prayed “most earnestly” that he could see them face to face. One reason he wanted to see them was so he could “supply what [was] lacking in [their] faith” (1 Thess 3:10).

Because of the way Paul had to leave Thessalonica (Acts 17:10), he likely had not finished the initial training and instruction he had planned for these young disciples. While we are not apostles, we do have important roles to play in ministering to each other within the body of Christ. God often calls us to be bearers of grace to one another.

Paul wanted them to be ready to meet Jesus

Paul ended this section of his letter with a benediction.

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess 3:11–13)

Paul has Jesus’s return in view throughout this letter. Here he holds up Jesus as the judge. He wants them to be blameless, and he knows that abounding in love is the way to get there.

Praying for Our Friends

This is a convicting passage for me. I don’t always have my friends’ growth and love in mind as I pray. I’m not often looking for opportunities to encourage and minister to them.

As I see my failings as a friend, I am reminded of Jesus, the Friend of sinners. He encourages, strengthens, and ministers to his people. Even better, he wants to be with us forever, and his sacrifice secures our hope.

As those who are friends of Jesus, by his grace, let’s learn to be better friends to each other. Then we can say, with Paul, that we really live if our friends are standing firm in the Lord.

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When Ministry is Like Parenting

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians might be the most tender epistle in the New Testament. In every chapter—in nearly every paragraph—Paul’s love is evident, rising like carbonation bubbles and popping on the surface.

Though Paul’s face-to-face time with the Thessalonians was brief (see Acts 17:1–10), they built a deep, warm bond. So it’s no surprise when Paul describes his time with them in familial terms.

Like a Mother

In the beginning of 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul defends himself against accusations of bad behavior. He did not preach out of “error, impurity, or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thess 2:3). He and his companions were not interested in pleasing men, like many other traveling teachers; they were only interested in pleasing God “who tests our hearts” (1 Thess 2:4). Finally, Paul was not interested in glory from men (1 Thess 2:6). He would not use his office as an apostle to make demands on the people (food, shelter, or money).

In contrast, Paul compares his missionary party to a nursing mother.

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess 2:7–8)

These two verses paint such a warm picture of the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonians! Take note of the affectionate words: gentle, nursing, taking care, affectionately desirous, share ourselves, very dear.

Not all ministry situations will look this way. Paul and his companions were willing to share their lives with the Thessalonians because they “had become very dear” to them. The affection came first, then the sharing of life.

A ministry that has this gentle, affectionate flavor is compelling. Though not all Christians are called to traveling, evangelistic ministries, we are all called to love our neighbors. And Paul’s description raises some important questions.

Would our neighbors describe us as gentle? Are we cultivating affection for our neighbors? Are we willing to share our lives along with sharing the gospel?

Like a Father

Further on in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul continues to defend his behavior in Thessalonica. He and his companions “worked night and day” so that they “might not be a burden” to the people (1 Thess 2:9). The Thessalonians were witnesses of their “holy and righteous and blameless” conduct (1 Thess 2:10).

Paul longed for the Thessalonians to walk closely with the Lord.

For you know how, like a father with his children, 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. (1 Thess 2:11–12)

Each one of those verbs in verse 11 is important. Paul and his co-laborers exhorted, meaning they explained the expectations in detail from the word of God. They also encouraged, meaning they gave the Thessalonians courage, they cheered them on. Finally, they charged, meaning they emphasized the people’s responsibility to fulfill their duties.

To appreciate the beauty and power of Paul’s comparison to a father, imagine a good, kind father teaching his son to ride a bike. After a period of instruction, the father jogs beside the bike, helping the boy to balance. When he sees his son catching on, he is lavish with his encouragement, telling the boy how proud he is. The training time goes on and the father reminds his son of the timing and actions needed for success. Before too long, the boy is able to ride on his own.

It is possible—all too common, in fact—for Christians to act more like an overbearing boss or a scolding nanny than an encouraging father. We pedal along, scoffing at those who can’t yet ride on their own. Or we laugh when we see a brother take a fall, and we eagerly gossip about his mistakes and injuries.

Madness Without the Gospel

Paul describes a close, vulnerable kind of ministry, and this model of love is madness without the gospel.

After all, when we get as near to others as family members, they will see our scars. They will learn our secrets and our sins. And this will give our enemies ammunition. Why would we choose this path?

The gospel is the answer. Paul was eager to share his life with the Thessalonians because his life was no longer his own. He would share his life along with the gospel, the good news that the Son of God not only shared his life but gave his life for his people.

Paul could encourage the Thessalonians to walk worthy of the Lord because this same Lord called them “into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12). The kingdom and glory that await—that are ours purely by grace—far surpass any damage that might come from people knowing the real us. In fact, we highlight the glory of that king and his kingdom by reminding others that we are welcome because of his goodness and power, not our obedience or worth.

Risk and Love

Don’t leave this passage in awe of Paul, thinking you could never follow in his steps. Leave this passage in awe of the Lord and how he works through his people.

We can love because we are loved. We can reveal ourselves because Jesus revealed himself. We can confess our weakness, because with Jesus that humility is strength.

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