Thursday, October 29, 2009

1 Thessalonians 1:1-3

V1-3 – 1Paul, Silas [or Silvanus] and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. 2We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we noted in the introduction, Paul traveled around Asia Minor and Greece during his second mission trip, converting some Jews and a large number of Gentiles to Christianity. He experienced persecution in various forms – violent rioting, imprisonment, mockery, etc. – throughout his trip, and generally speaking, we could affirm that God purposed that persecution as a means by which the gospel would spread quickly throughout the world. Furthermore, persecution of the young church kept it pure, in the sense that there were limited numbers of false believers within. Do to the lack of persecution in our churches today, we see a very high number of false believers, tares mixed in with the wheat. Thus we conclude that legitimate ministry may not be without hardship, for it is through the hardship that God works to bring His own unto Himself. And it also follows that in times of persecution, we serve as witnesses for Jesus. “This understanding,” says Vincent Cheung, “enables us to maintain a joyful attitude in the face of persecution, and to combat doubt and discouragement. Men’s endorsement does not validate a ministry, just as men’s rejection does not disqualify it. Only the word of God, the standard that has been revealed and established by divine revelation, is the true and final judge. But even though we speak with this note of triumph, the pain of persecution is actual and intense in those who must bear it. Therefore, let us be mindful of the suffering of our fellow believers, and pray for those who must endure hardship for the sake of the gospel.”

We see the truth above illustrated for us by the apostle Paul and also by the congregations to which he wrote. In fact, the Thessalonian church was, as Vincent Cheung notes, “birthed in persecution and remained in persecution.” Paul begins this letter with his standard greeting, including a benediction of grace and peace. His mention that the Thessalonians are “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” reveals the intimacy between Father and Son, as the Church is “in” both. Some find it interesting that Paul doesn’t elaborate on his apostleship or calling or authority as he does in other letters. This may be due to the fact that the letters came to the Thessalonians so soon after having been with Paul in person; or it may be due to the fact that the Thessalonian church already knew Paul well enough to not require an elaboration on his apostleship. Lastly, from v1, we covered in the introduction that Silas and Timothy were with him and may have even influenced Paul’s letters, in as much as they differ from Paul’s typical writing style.

In v2, Paul explains that he prays for the Thessalonian Christians, and specifically that he thanks God for them. This remark is an exhortation to perseverance. Cheung says, “Whatever good that is found in them, it is a work of God, so that Paul does not ask God to thank the Thessalonians for their much coveted endorsement of the gospel, but he thanks God for causing faith and holiness in them. A doctrine of human autonomy leaves room for only half-hearted thanksgiving. Thanksgiving necessitates remembrance of divine grace, a calling to mind God’s faithfulness and generosity toward us.”

In v3, Paul elaborates that he remembers in his prayers three things about them, and he mentions faith, hope, and love. Paul is thankful that the Thessalonians exhibit signs of these three paramount virtues of a genuine and thriving Christian. First, faith – being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1) – produces work, or works. James echoes this sentiment in his epistle. Cheung says, “The works of faith, then, will include obedience toward biblical commands, compassion for the sick and needy, eagerness to suffer for righteous reasons, boldness in speech and action, and enterprising efforts to advance the gospel.”

Second, love prompts labor. Cheung says, “Now, there are various wrong motives for spiritual labor. Some perform ministry work for vainglory, to impress other men and to be admired by them. Some are taken up by a sense of ambition – the same kind of ambition that men have for secular careers and achievements, but applied to ministry work. Others are driven by competition. Whether there is any need or reason for it, they want to be better than everyone else, or at least better than some specific individuals that they have in mind, because the thought of being less successful than they are is unbearable. In connection with this, there is the motive of spite. It is possible to pursue what appears to be worthy spiritual projects for no other reason than malice and revenge. Of course, these wrong motives, and many others not mentioned, tend to overlap. They are against the spirit of Christ and must be exorcised from the heart. Love is the only motive for spiritual labor that is worthy of the gospel. Contrary to the world's opinion and even most Christian teachings, this love is mainly not an emotion or a feeling, but a disposition that cares about the things of God, to honor his name and obey his commands, and that cares about the welfare of other people, regardless of any emotion or feeling. A person who loves may consistently experience certain emotions or feelings that seem to accord with such a disposition, but he thinks and behaves with love – that is, a sacrificial obedience to God’s law concerning how to relate to God and to people – whether or not he is experiencing these emotions and feelings. Christian love drives emotions and feelings, while non-Christian love, which is not love at all, defines love itself by their emotions and feelings, and then allow love to fluctuate along with these emotions and feelings… True love is biblical, intelligent, sacrificial, consistent, and persistent.”

Third, hope inspires endurance. The world’s hope is not Biblical hope. The former is like a wish or desire – I hope it doesn’t rain – an aspiration that is beyond one’s control; but the latter is a certainty for which we wait on God’s faithful timing. Paul writes elsewhere, “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:23-25). We hope in Jesus Christ, and though we wait for salvation, we already have it. It is so certain that oftentimes the Bible speaks of it in the past tense. It’s an already but not yet reality. This hope inspires endurance, which is perseverance, or preservation. We will overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11). Cheung concludes, “No wonder that those who grasp this shout and leap for joy. And no wonder those who have this hope possess great endurance. It is not a passive quality, but an active virtue. It energizes us to pursue that which God has ordained for us to do. As Jesus, ‘who for the joy set before Him endured the cross’ (Hebrews 12:2), so we will consider ‘that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18)… Our knowledge of God in the present forms the basis of our hope for the future, and this hope in turn enhances our comprehension about the present. We are not only able to interpret any event in the past and present in relation to Christ’s anticipated and then accomplished redemption, but we are also able to interpret any past and present event in the light of what we know God has in store in the future. Unbelievers cannot do this.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Introduction to the Thessalonian Epistles

This introduction will serve as the beginning of my comments on both of Paul's letters to the Thessalonians.

King Cassander of Macedonia founded the city of Thessalonica and named it after his wife, Alexander the Great’s half-sister, in 315 BC. Thessalonica was a Roman provincial capital with over 200,000 inhabitants in the first century AD. The apostle Paul had first come here from Philippi (1 Thessalonians 2:2) on his second mission trip (Acts 17:2). He preached in the synagogue on three consecutive Sabbaths with limited success, although many non-Jews converted, and therefore, the Thessalonian church was predominantly Gentile.

The author of both of these letters is indisputably the apostle Paul. He claims authorship, along with Silas (Silvanus, the Latin variant) and Timothy, as the greetings are nearly identical for each letter. There has been little challenge raised over Pauline authorship, though it may be that “certain peculiarities of these letters, in comparison with the rest of Paul’s writings, are due to the influence of either” Silas or Timothy. Furthermore, early church fathers Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr affirm Paul as the author.

Regarding Silas, he is mentioned some 23 times in Scripture (first in Acts 15, v22,27,32,40). He was a Jerusalem prophet, along with Judas called Barsabbas, who was chosen to go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch with the news from the Jerusalem council’s decision on Gentile converts to Christianity. After some time, Judas called Barsabbas returned to Jerusalem; meanwhile, Paul chose Silas to go with him on his second mission trip (after Paul and Barnabas split over John Mark). Timothy joined Paul and Silas in Lystra, where Paul circumcised Timothy – unlike Titus earlier – because of the Jews in the area; they knew and frowned on the fact that Timothy’s father was Greek. After teaching that entire region the message of the Jerusalem council, they were led by the Spirit into Macedonia to Philippi. After Lydia’s conversion and some prison time, they went to Thessalonica.

While staying in Thessalonica (3 weeks – 3 months), Paul and those with him (Silas and Timothy, among others) worked hard and received only a little help from the Philippian church (Philippians 4:15-16). This fact is one reason Paul stresses hard work in humility in this letter to the Thessalonians; he strives to correct their faults by his word and deed. Also, as Acts 17 reveals Paul’s strategy in Athens towards non-Jews, here he stresses the end times and coming judgment (1 Thessalonians 4:6; 5:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:1), though it should be noted that the Thessalonians’ faulty eschatological views did not necessarily lead to their poor work ethic. Throughout these letters, Paul spontaneously stresses Christ’s divinity and the Trinity, as, for example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. Also of note, Aristarchus (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2; Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24) was a prominent friend – fellow worker, fellow prisoner, and traveling companion – of Paul’s throughout the New Testament, and he was “a Macedonian from Thessalonica.”

Interestingly, Paul had to escape the city after a Jewish-led, rabble riot that resulted in a raid on Jason’s house in search for Paul. Paul fled to Berea, where Luke noted that the audience was nobler, willing to test and receive Paul’s teaching (unlike the Thessalonians as a whole), and then on to Athens and Corinth before returning to Antioch by way of Ephesus for a short rest. Both letters were written from Corinth (Acts 18:5; 2 Corinthians 1:19) during this – Paul’s second – missionary trip, around 50-51 AD. Very little time passes between the two letters (2 Thessalonians 2:15). It appears that Timothy gave Paul a report on the status of the Thessalonian church, and that report gave Paul occasion to write to them (1 Thessalonians 3:6-7). It seems that only a visit to deliver Paul’s first letter and return trip along with a second report from Timothy gave Paul occasion to write the second letter as a follow up. Without question, 2 Thessalonians supplements 1 Thessalonians, and of the Pauline epistles, only Galatians preceded the Thessalonian letters; only James was written before either of them in the entire New Testament.

Ironically, the similarities between the two letters have led some skeptics to conclude that the second letter is merely an imitation of the first, from a different author. But there are many reasons to reject this conclusion. For example, who better could imitate Paul than Paul? Also some suggest that the second letter has a different eschatological perspective from the first letter, but in reality, the second letter lays out a timeline that the first does not address, precisely because the audience needed to realize that Christ’s second coming hadn’t happened yet. We’ll consider other points as we cover the text.

Vincent Cheung points out that these two Pauline epistles “provide opportunities to cover a wide range of topics. They include the following:

- the doctrine of Scripture

- the doctrine of election

- the second coming of Christ

- the resurrection of the dead

- the ‘catching up’ of believers

- the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and the slaughter and dispersion of the Jews in AD 70

- persecution and providence

- the Great Commission

- ‘seeker-hostile’ ministry

- the relation of metaphysics and ethics in apologetics

- justice, revenge, and atonement

- the sin of slander

- the minister’s right to financial support

- the sin of idleness, and the correct policy toward idlers

- cessationism and prophecy

- observations on hermeneutics"

Next, we allow Calvin to sum up both letters: “Paul had instructed the Thessalonians in the right faith. On hearing, however, that persecutions were raging there, he had sent Timothy with the view of animating them for the conflict, that they might not give way through fear, as human infirmity is apt to do. Having been afterwards informed by Timothy respecting their entire condition, he employs various arguments to confirm them in steadfastness of faith, as well as in patience, should they be called to endure anything for the testimony of the gospel… he exhorts them, in general terms, to holiness of life, afterwards he recommends mutual benevolence, and all offices that flow from it. Towards the end, however, he touches upon the question of the resurrection, and explains in what way we shall all be raised up from death… he prohibits them, even more strictly, from inquiring as to times; but admonishes them to be ever on the watch, lest they should be taken unawares by Christ’s sudden and unexpected approach. From this he proceeds to employ various exhortations, and then concludes the [First] Epistle… In the first Chapter [of the Second Epistle], he exhorts them to patience. In the second, a vain and groundless fancy, which had got into circulation as to the coming of Christ being at hand, is set aside by him by means of this argument – that there must previously to that be a revolt in the Church, and a great part of the world must treacherously draw back from God, nay more, that Antichrist must reign in the temple of God. In the third Chapter, after having commended himself to their prayers, and having in a few words encouraged them to perseverance, he commands that those be severely chastised who live in idleness at the expense of others. If they do not obey admonitions, he teaches that they should be excommunicated.”

We’ll study these letters in eight chapter-divided segments, with five coming from 1 Thessalonians and 3 coming from 2 Thessalonians. Let’s consider the Word of God.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Christians and Santa Claus

It's that time of year again, and the marketing efforts have begun. The season is supposed to be all about gift-giving, given the fact that God gave the greatest gift when He sent Jesus to be born of the virgin Mary, which we celebrate on and as Christmas. But for the children, this special day of remembrance and celebration has come to mean gift-receiving, and it's hard to escape the cultural icon of Santa Claus. But I'm a father of four young children, and a discerning Christian above all else; therefore, I find it impossible not to defend my conclusion on Santa Claus for my family - and yours. Let me explain...

My wife and I early on decided to tell the truth to our children on most, and maybe even all, matters about which they inquire. So far, they haven't inquired about s-e-x, and so we haven't touched that yet. But they've asked some pretty deep theological questions, and they've asked about babies. While we may occasional simplify the answer for their young minds, (like saying that babies come from God, and that He takes some of Daddy's characteristics and some of Mommy's and forms them in the Mommy's tummy, and brings them out through the slit in her lower tummy - this works for ours, since they were all delivered via c-section!), we haven't lied or pretended or encouraged anything but the truth, at least so far as I can remember. And this parenting policy includes the routine dealings with all the popular cultural icons, such as the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, Halloween-related themes, and Santa Claus.

For example, we teach our children that we celebrate Easter because Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning. But we also celebrate the arrival of springtime (thanking God for His post-flood promise to keep the seasons going) and the newness of life (which comes from Jesus' life, death, and resurrection - His sustaining all things) on Easter as well. As part of this celebration, we might gather with family and have a feast. We also hide some eggs around the house, or out in the yard, as well as a personalized Easter basket, full of candy and/or small toys, for each of the children, and enjoy watching them find it/them. We might even playfully pretend that a giant Easter Bunny has done the hiding, much like I playfully pretend to be a terrifying giant trying to make a yummy children-stew as I chase the kids around the house. But it's just a game, and they know it. The Easter Bunny is a cultural icon, and the children understand that, each in their own way. More importantly, they have a great time without being lied to, and without forgetting that Jesus' rose from the dead, our hope of salvation.

With the tooth fairy, our daughter - the only one of our children to have lost a tooth (6 of them!) - knows that "the tooth fairy" comes while she sleeps and takes her tooth while leaving a dollar, or a toy, or something like that, but we've talked about that in more detail, such that knows that Mommy and Daddy are the tooth fairy. She's not scared about some mythological creature entering her room at night, and she knows that we enjoy giving her gifts.

As far as relating with other children and other families, let's face it - the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy don't really play that big of a role in the weeks and months leading up to the big days. But Santa Claus, on the other hand, does. That's why my decision for my family will impact your family, and the way you handle Santa Claus. Again, to elaborate...

...Our children know that Saint Nicolas was a real man who lived long ago, loved Jesus, and gave gifts to poor children because he loved Jesus. They understand that loving Jesus is expressed in love toward other people. For the same reason that St. Nick did that, we go and visit the people in nursing homes a couple times a month. It's a living, loving faith. Our children also know, more importantly that Christmas is about Jesus' birthday. We celebrate Jesus' birthday, not so much by giving Him gifts, but by giving gifts to those we love, much as God gave the ultimate gift to those He loved when He sent Jesus. That's what Christmas is all about. But just as Easter combines celebrations, so Christmas does as well. Thus, we have explained to our kids that Saint Nicolas has been remembered for centuries, because of his generosity, and his name in another language is, or has been shorted to, Santa Claus.

Some people, our children understand, have preferred to focus exclusively on Santa Claus, not on Jesus, just as they have done with the Easter Bunny. Some professing Christians have split their devotion, at least in time, to the icons and the Christ. Other solid Christian families have yielded to culture and outright lied to their children by saying that "Santa Claus will bring you toys." But our family will not do that. Other families have decided to allow the cultural idea of Santa Claus coming down the chimney with toys for all the good little girls and boys to be invigorated in their children by singing the songs and reading the stories and encouraging the cultural tradition without telling lies. But that's a fine line to walk, and I'm not sure how it's done. But we stand firm; our children know and appreciate that their parents and other loved ones give them gifts because they are loved, not by some fat man in a red suit, but by God Himself, extending to them through their families and friends. And here's why that matters for you:

If you ask our children what Santa Claus is bringing them, I'm not sure what they'll say. They may giggle and shyly say, "I don't know." What they really mean is, "I don't know why you pretend that Santa Claus brings anything. Instead, you ought to ask me what I'd like to receive for Christmas as a gift from my loved ones." Perhaps they'll say, "Santa Claus isn't real." I hope that doesn't offend you, but it's the truth. He was real; but today, he's a lie.

Finally, the hardest thing about this is that I don't want my children to "ruin Christmas" - from your perspective - for your children. I'm not going to encourage my children to go and tell all their friends that Santa Claus isn't real, or that he's really just your parents, or that Christmas is meant to be about Jesus, at least in bringing up the topic out of the blue. But if the topic is on the table, I'm not going to discourage my children from participating in the conversation, answering questions asked of them truthfully, or allowing the truth to be denied and/or stepped on. That would be bad parenting, and if you disagree, I'd like to know about it. But come with good reasons to lie.

Monday, October 26, 2009

DC 401 - Week 8 - Government / Politics

This week, we'll be focusing on the Christian's role and responsibility in regard to government and politics. There are three traditional views on the subject, which will be discussed in the last of the questions for the week. But until we get there, here's how the workload might break down:

Monday - Read and comment on 2 Kings 9-25
Tuesday - Read Psalms 72-73 and Eric Schansberg's article "Evangelicals and Economics"
Wednesday - Memorize Romans 13:1 - Each one must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. - and review previous memory verses, such as 1 Timothy 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, and 1 Timothy 6:10
Thursday - Answer questions 1a-d and 2a-c (7 questions) and review memory verses
Friday - Answer questions 3a-c, 4a-b, and 5 (6 questions) and review memory verses