It’s no good STARTING WELL. But then not SEEING IT THROUGH TO THE END. Like those runners at the start of the City to Surf. Who SPRINT AS HARD AS THEY CAN… for the first 200m. Then they collapse. Perhaps they don’t even make it to Bondi. But at least they can say they were winning the City to Surf. But there’s no prizes in being first to the first set of traffic lights.
It’s no good STARTING WELL. But then not SEEING IT THROUGH TO THE END. Like choosing a beautiful cross-stitch to embroider. Buy the kit. You organise all the colours. Put the backing material onto the frame. You begin the cross stitch. But then it all gets too hard. And it sits in the closet for the next 10 years.
Or what about this one? A while ago, we were inspired to grow our own veges and herbs. So I built a great garden bed. Good foundations. Nice and sturdy. I filled it with soil. Even forked manure and fertiliser through it. I’ve bought the seeds. All the things we need to enjoy fresh, home-grown veges.
But do you think we’re ENJOYING fresh home-grown veges yet? No! Because WE NEVER GOT AROUND TO PLANTING THE SEEDS!
It’s no good STARTING WELL. But then not seeing it through to the end. You’ve got to FINISH WELL.
Blameless and Holy
And it’s the same with the Christian life. Paul’s planted the Thessalonian church. He’s preached the gospel, and people have become Christians. He stays for a while, working night and day, so he can nurture them. Chapter 2 v7 Paul says he was like a mother caring for her children.
But eventually, he has to move on to other places. And he leaves the baby Christians there, all on their own, except for God’s care.
While he’s away, he hears reports of persecution. He’s concerned they’ll just give it all up as too hard. Return to their old way of life. Blend back in, and be just like everyone else. Waste their good start. He wants to drop everything and head straight back. Look at 2:17
17 But, brothers, when we were torn away 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 stopped us. 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.
You can just hear the worry in Paul’s voice as he dictates those words. So, in ch 3, we read he sends Timothy, one of his deputies, to strengthen and encourage them. So they wouldn’t be unsettled. And so all the hard work wouldn’t be wasted.
And, 3:6, Timothy sends good news. They’re standing up well. Paul’s overjoyed. 3:8
For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.
And he goes on to pray that God would enable them to KEEP GOING. All the way to the end. 3:13
13 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.
That’s the finish line Paul’s got his gaze fixed on. The end of this world. The day of justice. When all wrongs will be righted. All sin punished. And all God’s people found BLAMELESS and HOLY. (Keep those two words in mind, because we’ll come back to them.)
And so Paul goes on, in ch 4. How they’re to run the race NOW, so they’ll be found holy and blameless THEN. How to RUN WELL, so they can FINISH WELL. Plenty of practical advice on how they’re to be DIFFERENT. Like v3.
3 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 his own body in a way that is HOLY and honorable,
Holy and sanctified come from the same word. To be SANCTIFIED means to be set apart, or to be made holy. To be DIFFERENT. To be PURE/ in contrast to IM-purity. V7.
7 For God did not call us to be IMPURE, but to live a HOLY life.
And then in the next two chapters we see the sort of behaviour that should SEPARATE Christians from non-Christians. That shows them to be pure and different. The colours of their supporters gear. V11 of ch 4.
11 Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
Or jump down to ch 5 v12. More of the same. A whole series of instructions about RESPECTING those over you. And living at peace with each other. Encouraging the timid, being patient with everyone. Not seeking revenge. Being kind. Being joyful always. Not grumbling.
Do THOSE things. And you really WILL stand out from the crowd. Your colours will be clear.
And finally, in v21 and 22. (Have a look at it). Summing it all up. First in the POSITIVE. Then in the NEGATIVE.
Hold onto the GOOD. 22 Avoid every kind of EVIL.
Hold onto the GOOD. Cling to it. Search it out. Go hunting for it. APPLY yourself to it. Stick at it over time. Don’t give up when you fail. Jump back on the horse.
Hold onto the GOOD. Good thoughts and attitudes. Good influences. Good motivations. Good actions. Good responses. Good words. Good relationships. Good priorities. Good use of your time. Hold onto WHAT’S GOOD.
And avoid every kind of evil.
FLEE it. Put some DISTANCE between yourself and it. Walk out of the room. Leave the pub. Quit the team. Find a new job. Smash the modem. Burn the books. Avoid EVERY kind of evil. That’s the way to be holy. Different. Sanctified.
I was talking to a friend last week about a young guy in his church. He says he’s a Christian, and WANTS to be following Jesus. But his problem is he’s a really talented rock star. Got a manager, and a contract, and a great band. Which doesn’t SOUND like a problem. Except that it’s a lifestyle that’s leading him into so many temptations, and all sorts of bad influences, and upside-down priorities. That he’s just drifting further and further from Jesus. And my friend’s really WORRIED for him. Worried that he won’t finish the race. But this guy can’t SEE it.
God’s will is for us to be blameless and holy. To cling to what’s good. And to flee every kind of evil.
And so, Paul reaches his conclusion. His closing benediction. The BIG WORDS we’re focussing on today. V23.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, SANCTIFY you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be KEPT BLAMELESS at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
Sanctified through and through
The first idea to think about is SANCTIFIED THROUGH AND THROUGH. Hopefully, by looking at what Paul’s ALREADY said, we can see what he means by it. It’s a prayer that God would make us HOLY AND DIFFERENT AND SEPARATE.
There’s a sense in which EVERY CHRISTIAN is ALREADY sanctified. We’ve been SET APART by God to be his people. Like in Acts 20:32, where Paul says to the Ephesian elders.
I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance AMONG ALL THOSE WHO ARE SANCTIFIED.
Or 1 Cor 6:11. Talking about the whole Corinthian church.
But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
That’s a POSITIONAL sanctification, if you like. ALL Christians have moved from ONE team to the other. Set apart into GOD’s team.
But there’s also a PERSONAL sense. A growing holiness. A gradual process. Each day and week and month and year, becoming more and more like Jesus in your thoughts and words and actions and motivations and priorities. And that’s the sense Paul’s thinking about here. That’s why his prayer is that God would sanctify them THROUGH AND THROUGH. Completely.
Your on God’s TEAM, but over time, you need to be getting more and more of the team UNIFORM. What SEPARATES you from the OTHER team. First the jersey, then the beanie, then the flag, then the face paint, then the tattoo.
Some things are EASY to put on, and others incredibly painful. But the point of it all is to distinguish which team you’re on/ when that FINAL day comes. GRAND final day. When JESUS’ team will be declared the victors. And all those wearing HIS colours declared BLAMELESS.
And the more of the TEAM GEAR you’re WEARING, the more OBVIOUS it will be. And so Paul’s prayer is that God would sanctify his readers “THROUGH and THROUGH”. Thoroughly. Completely.
It’s an interesting word. Only time it’s used in the New Testament. Made up of two parts. HOLO-TELEIS. Wholly – To the end. Or, wholly – to COMPLETION. It’s not just fully, but fully – with a TARGET in mind. A DESTINATION.
It’s an idea spelled out in the NEXT part of the prayer.
May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Can you see the two ideas there? Wholeness, and completion?
Your WHOLE spirit, soul and body kept blameless. That’s every aspect of who you are – as you relate to God, the aspect that’s eternal, and the aspect that’s physical. ALL kept BLAMELESS. Without accusation or fault.
It’s an idea that connects with the previous verse. “Avoid EVERY kind of evil”. If you do that, then your WHOLE spirit, soul and body will be kept blameless. Avoid the evil that drags down your spirit – that undermines your relationship with God. Avoid the evil that pollutes your soul – that distorts your identity as a person of value and purpose, created in God to be his image in the world. Avoid the evil that pollutes your body – like sexual sin, that elevates GOOD things into IDOLS. Things made to be ENJOYED, but that we take TOO FAR, and replace God with them.
“Your whole spirit, soul and body kept blameless.”
And the TARGET? The GOAL? “At the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. GRAND final day”. When life histories are replayed, when charge sheets read out. And when God’s people will be found BLAMELESS, easily identified by their lives. The degree to which they’ve been SANCTIFIED THROUGH and THROUGH.
Jesus or Me?
But perhaps there are TWO questions running around in your head. First. “I thought salvation was about JESUS doing the work on my behalf. His death in my place. It sounds like it’s about MY performance. If I’m good enough – blameless – then God will save me on Judgment Day. Which is it? Jesus or me?
The answer is Yes, we ARE saved ONLY by Jesus. His death in our place. And Paul SAYS exactly that. Back in ch 1 v10. Paul’s heard how the Thessalonians
turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus, WHO RESCUES US FROM THE COMING WRATH.
See, it’s Jesus who RESCUES us. HIS work, not ours. And our RESPONSE to that/ is to SERVE the living and true God. And this blameless living. This holiness. This sanctification. Is what that service LOOKS like. Look at the order of things back in v3 of ch 1.
3 We remember your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ work comes FIRST, then OURS. Faith comes FIRST, then work produced by it. Love comes first, then labour PROMPTED by it. Hope in Christ comes first, then endurance INSPIRED by it. You’re MADE part of the team by Jesus, then you set about putting on the uniform.
John Calvin said: “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone.”
God or Me?
But perhaps you’re asking a SECOND question. “Sanctified through and through” and “wholly blameless” is a pretty tall order. Dave. I just don’t think I’m capable of becoming holy like that. I keep failing. Does that mean I miss out?”
To go back to the footy idea. Perhaps it seems to you a bit like grand final day? There’s the TALENTED ones – the ATHLETES, out there in the middle, with everyone cheering them on. Performing the super-human feats.
And then there’s YOU, looking on from the grandstand, cheering. Sure, you’ve got SOME supporters gear on, but you’re NO CHAMPION! You’re dressed in the same gear, and no one’s going to mistake you for being on the other side. But you’re never going to perform the same sorts of deeds as the PLAYERS!
But this isn’t an expectation for ELITE ATHLETES ONLY. It’s God’s will for EVERY Christian. To be growing in holiness. To be WORKING HARD AT IT. To be putting on more and more of the team’s colours. That’s why he gives us TRAINING TOOLS to help us. At least FIVE I can find.
1. Like THE BIBLE. God’s commands to US. Like Paul’s letter, this one we’re reading, written to encourage us to work hard. Giving us specific COMMANDS about good things to hold onto. And evil things to avoid.
2. And God gives us the EXAMPLE OF JESUS. Ch 1 v3. As we dwell on all Jesus has done for us, our faith, love and hope in him, inspire and energise our work for him.
3. And God gives us HIS SPIRIT. Ch 1 v7. Paul describes how his readers were able to respond in the face of severe suffering. “You welcomed the message WITH THE JOY GIVEN BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.” That’s, literally, a super-human effort. Suffering doesn’t produce JOY, unless it’s God’s Spirit working his sanctification in you. Same with all the other equipment – love, joy, patience, kindness, perseverance. All the work of God’s Spirit. Impossible to generate without him.
4. And finally, God’s given us PRAYER. That’s exactly what the verses we’re looking at today are. A prayer that God would sanctify us. If you struggle to measure up to this picture. If you constantly fail. If you’re indistinguishable from those around you. Perhaps you even struggle to WANT to be different. Then PRAY. Pray for the DESIRE to be holy. Pray for the strength to change. Pray for the vision and the faith to trust Jesus. Pray for team-mates to HELP you in the fight.
5. And God’s given us his PROMISES. Promises to LEAN on. Promises to push back against. Promises that he’s dealt with our sin. That Jesus will come back and take us to himself. That justice and truth will rule. That pain and sickness will end. Promises like v24.
24 The one who calls you is FAITHFUL AND HE WILL DO IT.
God’s given us his PROMISES to equip us to become holy.
But, of course, it’s not just US struggling. God giving us five training tools still sounds like it’s US doing all the work, with God lending a helping hand here and there.
The reality is, as v24 makes obvious, it’s GOD WORKING. In partnership WITH you. That’s what PRAYER implies. That’s what the gift of God’s Holy Spirit is. That GOD can equip you, and sanctify you.
It’s what v23 itself makes obvious. “May God HIMSELF sanctify you through and through.” Ultimately, he’s the one who does it. Humanly speaking, we’ve got to do all WE can. But only God can bring the holiness, the blamelessness. The true fruit that pleases him. That DISTINGUISHES us from the rest.
God is faithful
And that’s where the promise of v24 comes in.
24 The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
God never HALF-does a job. If he CALLS you, he’ll make sure he sees you through to the end. His plans ALWAYS comes together. He called you with that one goal in mind, that you be kept blameless at the coming of Jesus. And, if God is ANYTHING, he’s FAITHFUL. True to his word. Trustworthy. And so, he’ll make sure he sees you through to that end.
HE will do it.
God is faithful. Will YOU be faithful?
The year was 155 AD. The place was Smyrna, a city in modern day Turkey. The elder of the church there, Polycarp, was put on trial before the Roman consul. The consul gave Polycarp a choice: Burn incense and worship the Roman Emperor. Deny Christ and you’ll be freed. Or remain silent, and die.
Polycarp remained faithful, and was sentenced to death by fire. As the flames were lit, he was given one final chance to deny Jesus. He replied, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and HE HAS NEVER DONE ME WRONG. How can I deny him now?”
That’s FINISHING WELL! The one who CALLED YOU IS FAITHFUL and he will DO IT. Trust him. Lean on him.
May God sanctify you through and through, and keep you blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.