/ Jeffrey A Stivason

Will You Love Your Brother?

What is your impression of the church? When you think about the church what comes to mind? Think about the Old Testament church, the church underage and specifically that time after the Exodus but before the Conquest of the Promised Land. By all accounts, she was not in good shape.  In fact, on one occasion God had punished the Israelites by sending serpents throughout the camp. On another occasion a plague ravaged the people. And the hardships were the result of Israel’s disobedience. But God kept His promise.

And that obviously was a cause for consternation to the surrounding nations. It also explains why Balak, king of Moab, got scared and sent for Balaam. He wanted him to conjure a spell or curse the people of God. Balaam agreed to come. But instead of cursing Israel he couldn’t help but bless them! That may be the humorous side of the story but it’s not the most surprising element.

Notice what comes out of Balaam's mouth by way of description. He doesn't speak of Israel's disobedience; he says that they are like a lion. As he looks down on them, he says, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Isreal!  Like valleys that stretch out, like gardens beside the river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters. Is that the description you would have given?

God’s perspective of the church is coming out of this unfaithful prophet and the words challenge us. How do we think of the church? How do we speak of the church? Perhaps you don’t think very well about the church, but you are repentant.  The first chapter of the letter to the Thessalonians might be a good letter to reflect on. You might start by remembering something vital.

The Church has her foundation in God.

I am quite sure that this doesn't come as a surprise to you. Notice verse 4. Paul is speaking to the Thessalonians and this is what he says, "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you." The first thing that hits us is that Paul is speaking about a local church. Notice that Paul doesn't say to this local body, "For we know, brothers loved by God, your credible profession." No, he roots their existence as a church in the electing love of God.

Now, this leads us to a second point. God is said to have loved these people. Paul describes them as "loved by God." Loved when they were yet sinners. In fact, the word translated "loved" or "whom God loves" is a verb form indicating that this love was initiated in the past. Now, think of that in light of Romans 5:8. Though God loved these people in eternity His love was demonstrated for them on a Roman cross.

However, this raises a third point. God chose us. Verse 4 of first Thessalonians parallels Ephesians 1:4, "He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world. In love He predestined us…" He chose us out of death. We were dead in our sins and transgressions, and He made us alive in Christ.

God set His love upon the undeserving Thessalonians in His eternal counsel and he displayed that love in Christ when they were unlovable. But there is a fourth and final thing I want you to notice. This love and choice of God did not lead to abstraction. It led to a local church in Thessalonica.

It is impossible to speak of loving the church in the abstract. The church is made up of those God chose and often those God chose continue to struggle to become what they now are in Christ. In other words, on the hill overlooking Israel, the church underage, Balaam uttered words about the church that came from God's perspective because He sees His people in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. This leads to a natural conclusion.

Christians Need to Love the Church

Believers are obligated to recognize God's choice of and work in other believers. Notice verse 3, Paul says, "remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” For now, let’s ask a simple question. What are Paul and his companions remembering? They are bearing in mind, if I might render it this way, "your work that arises from your believing, and your hard labor that comes from your love, and your endurance that comes from the hope you have."

I think at this point it might be helpful to say something about the context of this letter. People don't often realize it but the church in Thessalonica is a direct result of the Macedonian vision that we read of in Acts 16. You will remember that Paul had been trying to enter Asia but the Spirit did not permit it. And then, Paul was given a night vision. A vision of a Macedonian man saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." And so, Paul went. He sailed into Neapolis and then went on to Philippi.

We often equate that church, the Philippian church, with the Macedonian call. But after leaving Philippi Paul went on to Amphipolis, Apollonia, and then Thessalonica and these were also in Macedonia. These were the regions to which Paul was beckoned by the Macedonian man in the vision. But why tell this history?

I want you to notice how long they stayed in Thessalonica. Acts 17 says that Paul preached in the Synagogue for three Sabbaths. Paul and his entourage may have been there slightly longer than three weeks. But even if they had spent three to six months there among the Thessalonians this church is of a very tender age. And what is more, Paul hardly knew them. And on top of that this was a strange group. The gentiles worshiped a variety of false gods and religion was not private but civic. And those who came to faith came with baggage attached. Now, with that background in mind think again of what Paul says. After getting to know the Thessalonians a short time he remembered their work that arose from their believing, and their hard labor that came from their love, and their endurance that came from their hope.

Now, I don't know about you but that is a charitable interpretation of this tender young church. Now, perhaps the cynic in you is raising his head. Perhaps you think that this is first century fluff. May I say, I find that explanation hard to believe. Think about what Luke says in Acts 17:11. After leaving Thessalonica in a hurry Paul left the main road of the Ingatian Way and visited Berea and in v. 11 of Acts 17 we read, "Now these were more noble minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so." That doesn't sound like fluff to me. That sounds like a critical assessment.

So, if Paul and his peers could make that assessment then they could certainly talk about their faith, love, and hope in ways we see here. Let me put it this way. We often talk about thinking God's thoughts after Him. My question is are you seeing the way God sees? What does that mean? It means seeing the church according to Balaam’s words, as a glorious garden, as fair tents with lengthening pegs, and as a lion. It means when the first thing that I notice about another Christian is something external and not the Christ in their hearts, I am demonstrating my own need for spiritual glasses.

Such was not the case with Paul. He was able to see in the short time he had been with them, their work, which arose from their belief, their labor, which arose from their love, and their endurance, which arose from their hope. Let me ask you a question. How hard is it for you to see others in a similar way? In other words, do you see in others faith, love, and hope? Are you able to look at someone who professes faith and see those things? Because if you are able, then you will interpret their work and labor in light of those Spirit wrought virtues despite their temporary and dying ignobility.

Brothers and sisters, we are in need of being a genuine family in these difficult days. We need one another and that need will only increase over time. Let me make a simple suggestion. I don’t need to help you love those you already love, but what about those who are like the Thessalonians, those less noble. How can I help you with them?  Let me urge you to pray a specific request. Pray that your love would abound toward the ignoble brother or sister in your life (Phil. 1:9). And if you are willing, your heart will enlarge for them and others. How can it not? They are your Father’s children.

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.

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