Lay Reader = 2 Corinthians 3:12-18
12Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
We are continuing our series looking at Paul’s letters to the church in Thessalonica. Last week we saw how Paul found lasting fulfillment from investing in the people of the church. We learned the difference between praying generically and praying specifically. And we heard how serving others can get you out of your navel gazing and actually re-energize your faith or your group.
This week we are we looking at what Paul told the Thessalonians about living a Christ-like life. Listen for the different kinds of things Paul includes in a Christ-like life.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. 2For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; 4that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, 5not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. 8Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.
9Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; 10and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, 11to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, 12so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.
Well I was the best man for my brother’s wedding, which was a sign of how far we had come from our history of fighting every day while growing up. And as the best man it was my job to plan his bachelor party. And he wanted to go to Las Vegas. Of course, I was in seminary at the time, learning to become a pastor. So I told him I could organize the trip to Vegas, but his best friend would have to be in charge of the activities once we got there.
I was with them for the karaoke at the beginning of the night. In case you’re wondering, I sang a Seattle grunge rendition of “What I Like About You” by the Romantics. Killed it. But I elected to do my own, future pastor-approved activities for most of the rest of the night.
My brother’s friend had great belief in my knowledge and math skills, so he asked me for some easy-to-remember tips for gambling. And he told me the next day that they worked! He believed in me, he followed my advice, and it went well!
Of course, then I told him that he was unlikely to keep up the lucky streak and he should quit while he was ahead. And it turns out he believed my earlier advice, but not this new advice. He didn’t heed my warning, he believed in his luck more than my advice, and he lost it all! Totally surprising, right?
Why do I tell you this? Because what we believe affects what we do. That’s why Paul talks about “instructions” in verse 2. That’s why Paul wants the Thessalonians to understand the “will of God” in verse 3. That’s why he talks about God’s authority in verse 8. That’s why he talks about being “taught by God” in verse 9. He knows their beliefs matter.
We run into this with our son Charlie’s therapists sometimes. For instance, he has been using an iPad to help him communicate better. Some therapists believe that the device will hold him back from talking. Other therapists believe that the device gives him language he can use verbally when he doesn’t have the device with him. Their beliefs about the talker shape their therapy. We have to find therapists whose beliefs line up with what we see in Charlie so that their therapy will line up with what he needs. Beliefs matter.
The Reveal study looked at churches across the country, and they tried to measure which beliefs, organized church activities, personal spiritual practices, and spiritual activities with others would result in spiritual growth. And they found certain beliefs in our faith were really important at different phases of our spiritual walks.
For instance, as someone is just starting to follow Jesus it’s important to believe that we are saved by the grace of God, not by being perfect. We are saved because Jesus chose to save us, not because we deserved it. That belief affects how people act in their lives. If someone believes they have to be perfect to be around other Christians, how long are they going to stick around? Anyone here ever done something that God wouldn’t like? Yeah, if we had to be perfect none of us would be here. So that belief matters!
Further along in our walk with Jesus, it’s really important to believe that we can have a personal relationship with our God through Jesus. If you believe God is really distant, are you going to ask him for specific, personal guidance and direction? Probably not. If God is just a distant set of ideas and rules, it’s all up to you to figure out what you need to do next. But if we can have a personal relationship with God through Jesus, then God is involved in our daily decisions. We can ask for direction. We can follow guidance from the Holy Spirit that we would otherwise never do. I’ve done that many times, and never regretted it. Believing in a personal relationship with God through Jesus matters!
For those who want their walk with Jesus to be the dominant aspect of their lives, it’s important to believe that our lives aren’t our own. Our lives are God’s in the first place, so we’re just giving to God what he already owned. If you’ve ever had a little child, you know that it’s not easy to get them to share their toys. It’s hard to give someone else YOUR toy! But it’s a little easier to return someone else’s toy after they let you play with it. In the same way, it’s easier to follow Jesus when you believe your life was already Jesus’ to begin with. That belief matters.
Beliefs matter…because they shape our behavior. And Paul shows us in our text today that behavior matters to Jesus, too.
In this particular instance, Paul seemed pretty concerned about sexual behavior. Paul spends six verses talking about sex. It’s like half of our text today. Why so much talk about sex?
To answer that question, let us first consider the pastors I’ve known who served churches in Las Vegas. Those churches have certain issues that come up given their setting. Side note, Thessalonica was kind of like Vegas, hence two Vegas references on the same Sunday.
Churches in Vegas have to decide what they’ll do with casino chips that are left in the offering plate. Someone has to go to the casino to convert those into money for the church. Probably better make it two people going to the casino to convert those into money for the church. Or do you just throw the chips away rather than sending your church people to the casino?
Or for churches that are close to the main strip in Vegas, what do they do when people stumble in at the end of a long night that stretches into the morning? What do they do when prostitutes come to church? These are common ministry questions in Vegas churches. There’s such a huge gap between what happens in Vegas and how Christians are called to live that it generates some interesting issues, right?
In the Roman culture at the time these letters were written, there weren’t any societal norms that would discourage prostitution, promiscuity, or pretty much any sexual practice. Everything was pretty much fair game unless you were talking about the wife of a rich man. So for Gentile Christians, their expectations on sexual behavior were in line with their culture.
Jewish Christians, on their other hand, had a very different set of expectations. In the early parts of Jewish history, we see multiple wives, we see hiring prostitutes as a generally-accepted practice. But over time the Jewish culture came to share an expectation of chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage. And marriage evolved from a man having many wives to monogamy.
So there were hugely different default expectations of sexual behavior depending on whether the Christian came from a Jewish or Gentile background. But as I shared a few weeks ago, the church in Thessalonica was almost entirely Gentile. So there weren’t many Jewish Christians to teach them or show them what Paul thought was proper sexual behavior.
You may have heard that our society has been having some debates about sexual behavior. The people in our church have a wide range of opinions on those debates, so we generally reserve those conversations for times when we can have dialogue at classes or over coffee rather than preaching on it. But I do think Paul offers a corrective here to two stances in our society today. I realize talking about this subject at all is likely to make a third of the church displeased with me no matter what I say, but I felt strongly guided by the Holy Spirit to highlight these two points. I believe they should be kept in mind across the whole spectrum of opinions and stances in our church.
First, it is interesting to me that Paul strongly believed that Jewish dietary restrictions no longer applied to Gentile Christians. And he strongly believed that Gentile men didn’t need to be circumcised to become a Christian. But he still talked about sexual behavior to these Gentile Christians. We can debate about the specifics, but to me that says that there are God-honoring and God-dishonoring sexual practices. The Thessalonians were in a society that was a sexual free-for-all, and Paul cautioned them against that. So our sexual behavior still matters to Jesus. Paul thought that Jesus had zero care for Gentiles following the Jewish dietary rules, but Paul didn’t think Jesus had zero care for sexual behavior.
Second, I mentioned that there are six verses about sexual behavior in our text today. Six! That’s a lot! But on the other hand, it’s only six verses out of this whole book. Jesus addressed sexual behavior only a handful of times. It wasn’t zero, but it wasn’t his dominant theme. So I would caution against using sexual behavior as a way to summarize someone’s holiness. Sexual behaviors matter, but they aren’t a proxy we can use to summarize and categorize and pronounce final judgment on another person. Our sexual behavior matters to Jesus, but they’re far from the only thing that matters to Jesus.
Stepping back from that particular debate, I have a general take-away from this passage. I see that generally there are behaviors that matter to Jesus. Paul thought the Jewish food behaviors no longer mattered, and he thought Jewish circumcision no longer mattered, but he thought other behaviors still matter. In our text today,Paul highlighted a few other behaviors that still matter to Jesus.
One major behavior that still matters to Jesus is our love for one another, Paul says. And he doesn’t want just a little bit of love for our brothers and sisters, he says we should continually increase in our visible love toward one another. How much love have you demonstrated today? How much love will you demonstrate today?
Another behavior that Paul says still matters to Jesus is our work. The Thessalonians heard Paul talking about Jesus’ return, and they thought that meant Jesus was returning very soon. Like a matter of months or a handful of years tops. And some of them were so sure about this – which we know their timing was off by a couple of millenia at least – but they were so sure that they quit their jobs, maybe quit paying their bills. They just shut everything down and waited for Jesus to come again. Any second now, Jesus. Jesus? You there?
But Paul told them that’s the wrong belief and the wrong behavior. He told them to keep working for the Lord right up until the second he appears. When there are parts of our city that confound and sadden us, that seem intractable and unsolvable, should we throw our hands up into the air and give up? No! We keep working for the Lord right up until the second he appears.
If there are problems in our church that seem insurmountable, that seem like the end is already written, should we throw our hands up into the air and give up? No! We keep working for the Lord right up until the second he appears.
We can and should believe that this world won’t be perfect until Jesus comes again to finish the job, but we can and should also believe that he tasked us with making this world a reflection of heaven on earth as much as we can.
Sisters and brothers, our beliefs matter to Jesus. And our behaviors matter to Jesus. A Christ-like life shapes both – our beliefs and our behaviors. What belief or behavior could you work on that would make Jesus smile? Amen.