August 15, 2011 David Balzer

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28: Follow the Leader

Head down to Bunnings, or Flower Power, or even your local library or gym this weekend, and you can join any number of SELF-IMPROVEMENT WORKSHOPS. Watch, listen to, and copy the experts, and before you know it you’ll be building a verandah, pruning fruit trees, learning a foreign language, or getting rid of those winter love handles.

You’ve got to hand it to those experts. They deserve RESPECT. They INSPIRE you with their knowledge, and their skills. Even their PASSION for their area of expertise.

And the way to improve. The way to achieve peak performance is to WATCH THEM CLOSELY. Respect them. Listen to them. Ask them questions. And then COPY them. Even practice ALONGSIDE them, so they can watch and correct YOU.

Attitude to Others

And that’s what the Apostle Paul wants the Thessalonians to be doing here in the last few verses of his letter. He’s given them all the instructions, all the rebukes and encouragements. And now he’s got to finish, and hand them over to OTHERS. The models they need to follow. To listen to and copy.

Follow the Leader

But it’s not home handymen or gardeners or personal trainers he’s pointing them to. It’s their church leaders. V12. Paul’s saying, “Use THEM as your models. The ones over you in the Lord.” V12

12 Now we ask you, brothers, to RESPECT those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 HOLD THEM IN THE HIGHEST REGARD in love because of their work.

Paul’s strategy for Christian improvement. For spiritual maturity. Is to be like your leaders. Look up to them. Respect them. And IMITATE them. Follow the leader.

Which comes as a bit of a surprise in our culture, really. To have LOCAL CHURCH LEADERS as the models you follow. When we can cruise the internet, watch the Christian channel on TV, or listen to Hope 103.2. And learn from far smarter, more successful and famous Christian leaders. From John Piper, or Mark Driscoll, or Tim Keller, or Brian Houston, or Don Carson.

It seems a bit strange to hold up LOCAL CHURCH LEADERS as your role model. I mean, nobody’s ever asked me for an autograph, and I don’t think anyone’s got a poster of Dean or Gordon or Ian on their bedroom wall.

Why are we to respect our church leaders? To hold them in high regard? It’s very different from why we might copy our local self-improvement experts at Bunnings or the gym. It’s not about church leaders being EXPERTS. It’s not because they’re particularly clever, or successful, or good looking.

It’s because of WHAT THEY DO AMONG YOU. We should respect and copy them because they WORK HARD AMONG YOU, and because THEY ADMONISH YOU.

If YOU’VE had to do it, you’ll know it’s hard work admonishing people. Not much fun having to correct people. But Paul says not only should you look up to your leaders and respect them for it, you should LOVE them for it. It’s hard work. And it’s helpful to you.

Have you ever thought about that? About how hard it is to be a church leader? To have to correct people. To have to be the one to bite the bullet and say the hard words that sometimes need to be said. I can tell you, it’s agonising. You’d rather be doing anything else. And you might as well draw a target on your back. Because it doesn’t always go down well. Heartfelt thanks is not the normal response. No matter how gentle, no matter how helpful. No matter how loving the approach.

And it’s something we elders don’t take lightly. We spend a lot of time praying for you guys, asking for God’s help for you. Asking for his wisdom FOR US as we lead you.

And I’ve seen how hard your leaders work. Elders or youth group leaders or home group leaders, management committee, even kids church teachers. And how hard they wear the responsibility they’ve got to look after you. I’ve seen our elders in tears for situations here at church. I’ve seen youth group leaders and home group leaders AGONISING over decisions and situations.

I’ve our leaders so exhausted from work or family concerns. And yet they turn up to meetings and home groups. Turn up with their microwaved dinner in a Tupperware container, because they walked in the door from work, then walked straight out again.

So let me ask you. How well are you TAKING this instruction? Think about those people who LEAD you – our elders or home group leaders. Have them pictured in your mind. Now, let me read v12 again.

RESPECT those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 HOLD THEM IN THE HIGHEST REGARD IN LOVE because of their work.

Is that what YOU’RE doing? How do you take CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM? Are you DEFENSIVE? Do you become BITTER? Do you want to point the finger straight back? Do you want to take your bat and ball, and go home? Withdraw from church events?

If we’re going to take on board what Paul’s saying here, instead of BEING OFFENDED, we should be DELIGHTED. We should RESPECT it. Rather than fuming and muttering about hypocrisy. Rather than gathering up gossipy critics.

We should LIVE AT PEACE WITH ONE ANOTHER. THRILLED that someone would care for us enough to do that. We should thank them. Hold them in high regard because of it. We should LOVE them for it.

What does it LOOK LIKE to respect them? To be DELIGHTED at their concern for you? You SHOW you respect the advice by what you DO with it. By whether you prayerfully take it on board. And then DO SOMETHING about it.

It may not always be RIGHT, but at least PRAYERFULLY CONSIDER it. It may only be something from that leader’s point of view. They may have misunderstood something. But at least take it on board. That’s how you RESPECT the leader GIVING it.

Serve others

But not only that, we should use our leaders as A MODEL. The one aspect of a leader’s job mentioned here, other than working hard, is that he ADMONISHES. All sorts of OTHER parts to the job TOO – like encouraging, and helping, and being patient. But THIS BIT is probably the time when people need reminding to respect their leaders – when they’ve be ADMONISHED.

But notice what instructions Paul gives THE REST of the church. There from v14.

14 And we urge you, brothers, WARN THOSE WHO ARE IDLE,

It’s translating the same word as ADMONISH. Leaders are to admonish, but so are THE REST of the brothers. Paul wants EVERYONE to be doing the same sorts of things their LEADERS are doing.

And then he continues. All the OTHER things we want our leaders to be doing. EXCEPT Paul wants US ALL to be doing them.

Encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.

Notice what your leaders are doing. Then IMITATE them. COPY them. Watch them, and USE THEM AS YOUR MODEL. Do THAT, and I reckon our church would really be looking after each other the way God wants.

Our leaders here put themselves out again and again. They sacrificially SERVE you. Putting themselves LAST, to put you FIRST.

They’re not empire-building. They’re not on an ego trip, loving the power. They’re not BULLIES. They genuinely want to see our church growing more like Jesus. Growing in perseverance and humility and patience and love. And they’ll PRAY it, and they’ll WORK at it to see it HAPPEN.

And that’s the sort of attitude Paul says we should COPY.

It’s a very OTHER PERSON CENTRED attitude. So different from the normal way the WORLD works. From the SELF-IMPROVEMENT workshops. That are all about developing YOURSELF. Achieving your OWN goals, improving your OWN performance.

Listen to the comment of someone who attended a self-improvement workshop run by the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins. Robbins is the author of the book, Unleash the Power Within. And here’s what someone said after attending his course. See if you can count the number of times he refers to himself.

I don’t have to go by anyone else’s values or anybody else’s beliefs. This is my life, and if I want to enjoy the process, I have the techniques and I now know how to.

It’s a very ME-centred philosophy.

But the strategy PAUL’S suggesting to achieve Christian maturity will have very different outcomes to those of Anthony Robbins. It’s not about ME, ME, ME. It’s about YOU, YOU, YOU. Listen to those couple of verses again, this time listening TO WHERE THE FOCUS LIES. Who people are looking towards.

Live in PEACE with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are IDLE, encourage the TIMID, help the WEAK, be patient with EVERYONE. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for WRONG, but always try to be KIND to each other and to everyone else.

Try to see things from THE OTHER PERSON’S point of view. Don’t DEMONISE them. Don’t make it us vs them. Put yourself in THEIR shoes. Live at PEACE.

And look around you. Be OTHER PERSON CENTRED. See anyone who’s IDLE? WARN them. It’s not GOOD for them to be lazy. It’s not good for them to give up on coming to church because they can’t be bothered. Might be tough for you to SAY it, might be easier for you to say NOTHING. But do it anyway!

It’s not just the LEADERS’ job to warn. We’re ALL to do it. As we follow the model of our leaders.

Let’s keep going. See anyone who’s TIMID? Anyone not included. Encourage them. Include them. Don’t leave them on the outside. Bring them into the middle. A compliment costs NOTHING. But it’s PRECIOUS.

See anyone who’s WEAK? Who’s not coping? Then HELP them. Support them. Let them LEAN ON YOU. It’ll COST YOU, cost you in time, or money, or emotional energy. But that’s the path to Christian maturity. For YOU, as WELL as for the weak person you’re helping.

Or see anyone who’s ANNOYING? Don’t snap back. Don’t avoid them. Be PATIENT with them. Good for YOUR maturity, AND for theirs.

Or into v15. More OTHER PERSON CENTRED attitudes. Someone does your WRONG? Let it go – truly! Don’t just PRETEND everything’s alright face-to-face. And then grumble about them behind their back. Honestly forgive them. And work at MENDING the bridge. Try to be KIND to each other. Good for YOU, and for THEM.

And if you’re doing all of THOSE things. It actually makes it easier to do the DIFFCULT job of WARNING or REBUKING. If you’ve shown love and concern, your rebuke will be better received. If you’ve EARNED the right to comment, the person will be more inclined to ACCEPT it. Because they know you LOVE them.

Be thankful

But it’s not only your attitude to OTHERS you should model on your leaders. What about your ATTITUDE TO LIFE? V16

16 Be joyful ALWAYS; 17 pray CONTINUALLY; 18 give thanks IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I wonder how many people at an Anthony Robbins self-improvement seminar have one of THOSE verses as a life motto. Or a goal in their ten year plan.

I wonder how many people say, “What I really want out of life. Where I want to be in ten years. Isn’t to own a string of investment properties, or to be successful and independent. It’s to be joyful always. To pray continually. And to give thanks in all circumstances.”

I could safely say there’d be no one.

And yet, there it is. Paul’s commands for a Christian approach to life. A path to self-improvement. Not so much to be successful in what you do. Or constantly to be improving in your abilities and skills. But to be thankful no matter what. Thankful when things DON’T go the way you’d like. Thankful when you miss out, while others seem to get everything. Or get AWAY with everything.

And notice the last little phrase? For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. WHAT is God’s will? To be joyful, prayerful and thankful DESPITE your circumstances. God’s will for you ISN’T that you be healthy, wealthy and wise. It isn’t that everything always fall into place perfectly in your life.

If you think like that, then you’re bound for disappointment. You’ll resent God. Think you deserve something better. Or you’ll feel guilty, and blame yourself because your life ISN’T perfect when EVERYONE ELSE’S seems to be. And wonder what you’re doing wrong. Why you’re missing out on God’s blessing.

Way more important than a smooth and carefree life is a GOD-FOCUSSED ONE. One where your basic orientation to life, WHATEVER comes your way, is towards God. Recognising him, considering him, and being thankful for whatever he gives you. Because he knows best. That’s God’s will for you.

That’s what the Thessalonians had. They were joyful even though they were treated TERRIBLY. They suffered persecution, but they welcomed the gospel WITH JOY.

And God’s will for us is the same. To be joyful, prayerful and thankful. WHATEVER our circumstances.

Joyful, prayerful and thankful.

Even when your babies are born premature, or your mother is diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, or is stuck in a nursing home. Or you’ve been unemployed for ages. Or your kids are growing apart from you. Or your car blows up in Queensland. Or your hair’s falling out, or your eyesight’s failing. Or your bones are creaking.

But how do you DO that? It’s not easy. And I’m no expert. But I reckon the key is there in the MIDDLE of that section. PRAY CONTINUALLY. Which doesn’t mean 24-7 on your knees. It means going through your day recognising that you’re in God’s presence. That he’s controlling everything that happens. That you’re going through your day IN PARTNERSHIP with him. That nothing happens without his say-so. That he’s your loving father who brings difficult things to train you. To discipline you. To teach you to rely on him. And to make you hope for heaven.

And I think recognising THAT makes it easier to be joyful and thankful always.

There’s a well known hymn called “It is well with my soul”. The hymn’s well known. But it’s not so well known that Horatio Spafford wrote it in tragic circumstances. In 1871 a fire wiped out a big chunk of Horatio’s investments in Chicago. His son had died shortly before the fire. In 1873 Horatio planned a trip to Europe with his wife and four daughters. While he was there he was going to help with some evangelism, with his friend Dwight Moody. At the last minute business prevented Horatio from going, but he sent his wife and his four daughters on a ship ahead of him. On November 22 the ship was struck by another ship and sank. Only his wife survived. And in the light of the loss of his four daughters this is when he wrote this hymn. The words of the first verse:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well, with my soul.

See, improvement and growth is so different for Christians. It isn’t so much about being successful as it is about being JOYFUL. Deep, real, contentment and acceptance. Way better than happiness. Than feelings that depend on circumstances. On whether you’ve got up on the right side of the bed that morning.

Joy is about trusting in what God’s doing despite the circumstances. This is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Be joyful, pray, give thanks.

Attitude to God

That’s your attitude to LIFE. Third, Paul considers our attitude to GOD. V19. And it really flows on from the PREVIOUS section. If you approach life recognising God’s good hand on everything. Then you’ll want to be OPEN to him. Open to how he wants you to live. V19.

19 Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21 Test everything. Hold on to the good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil.

WHATEVER influence God’s bringing to bear on your life. Whatever influence his Spirit’s having to make you like Jesus. Don’t IGNORE it. Don’t EXTINGUISH it.

If it’s sermons, or books. If it’s other people’s advice or rebukes or corrections or help. If it’s conferences, or poems, or the words of a song. Or if it’s God’s Word direct to you. It may even come when you least expect it.

Wherever God’s influence comes from don’t treat it with contempt. Don’t let it wash over you. Don’t react angrily, or hastily or dismissively. Stop and think about it. Write it down. Think about it. Pray about it. Test it to see if it’s really from God or not. If it’s WISE. If it’s really for your GROWTH. Then hold onto it if it’s good. And avoid it if it’s NOT.

And as Paul comes to the end of his letter. A letter with lots of advice about how WE’RE to act. About how WE’RE to think and speak and behave. About our self-improvement. He finishes with a wonderful PRAYER based on a wonderful TRUTH. V23.

A truth we really should have realised if we’re living out joyful and prayerful and thankful lives. If we’re living out that God’s in control of our surroundings. The truth is God’s in control of US TOO. Of our progress, and our destination. It’s really about our GOD-improvement, rather than our SELF-improvement.

He WANTS to work his power in us to make us like Jesus. And to bring us to the end blameless. That’s HIS will, and HIS goal. His power will bring it about. And you can trust his faithfulness to DO what he promises. And to finish what he starts.

And I can’t think of a better way to finish than to finish with these words. V23. Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians. It’s my prayer FOR YOU.

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.

Amen.

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