Summer in Thessalonica – The Second Letter

Paul had preached the message that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior in the city of Thessalonica (Acts 17). While there he faced persecution, soon leaving for the nearby city Berea. He left a very small community of Christians behind. After traveling to Athens and then Corinth, he wrote a letter to this tiny church (the letter we have just studied most of the summer). He stayed in Corinth for about 18 months (Acts 18). It was shortly after sending the letter to Thessalonica that he received a disturbing report.

Apparently, in addition to his letter the church in Thessalonica received another “prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come” (2 Thess. 2:2). This caused Paul to fire off a second letter to the Thessalonian church. Only three chapters, it answers some confusion they had about the second coming of Jesus (2 Thess. 2) and takes on the issue of lazy people in the church (2 Thess. 3). But first it offers encouragement for them as they face persecution (chapter 1):

1 Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

2 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

5 All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul thanks God that the Thessalonians are growing in faith and love as they go through persecution (1:3-4). This echoes the beginning of the first letter: “We 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” (1 Thess. 1:3). Likewise, the reality of persecution was also a theme of the first letter (1 Thess. 2:14-16; 3:2-4).

Growing in faith and love and enduring persecution demonstrates that the Thessalonian Christians will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God (1:5). This takes us back to the relation of faith and works. We are saved by grace, it is nothing we can do, it is a trust in the work Jesus has already done on the cross. Evidence of our salvation comes as the Holy Spirit works in us, producing good works (think fruits of the Spirit, Galatians 5, or in the case of the Thessalonians here, enduring suffering).

Furthermore, God is just in his judgment on those who rebel against him (1:6-10). This is a difficult passage and I actually plan to write a separate post on it early next week. The basic point is that a day will come when Jesus is revealed, the curtain is drawn back and the presence of God floods creation. All those who yearn for that day will welcome it and glorify God; those who rebel against and hate God will be shut out from God’s presence.

Finally, Paul prays for them (1:11-12). As I read this passage and think about 2 Thessalonians as a whole, I keep coming back to one thing: it is so cool that Paul took the time to write an additional letter. This shows he was constantly praying for these people, that he loved and cared for them deeply as friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul was invested in their lives for the long haul (he may have visited him a couple more times on his travels in Acts 19:21; 20:1-6). My prayer is that we would be invested in each other’s lives in the same way, constantly praying and caring for people, not giving up on anyone and always willing to offer a kind word, a listening ear or help when needed.

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CS Lewis on the Holiness of Learning and Work

CS Lewis’s lecture, “Learning in War-Time” provides an excellent defense for Christian study at university. Beyond just that, it shows what is the value of Christian living in everyday life. The question every Christian who comes to the university faces is how it is right for “creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology” (The Weight of Glory, 48-49). In other words, if we really believe people are dying and going to hell, why waste time studying business or chemistry or engineering? On that note, why do anything but preach, speak to people, beg them to believe in Jesus?

Lewis was speaking during World War II about why study during a war is valid and honorable. But Lewis does not limit his argument to war, he immediately expands it to the bigger issue of studying at any time:

“We have to inquire whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this. That is, we have always to answer the question, “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?” and we have, at the moment, to answer the additional question, “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think of anything but the war?” (50-51).

The challenging thing is that it is clear that our Christian faith, should (must), occupy the whole of life (53). What does this look like? Only do “spiritual” things? Preach and evangelize all the time? Lewis reminds us that Paul told people to get on with their jobs (1 Thess. 4:11-12, for example). He then suggests that the solution is found in the scripture, “Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Lewis realized that after conversion his life consisted of doing most of the same things he had done before, but in a new spirit, with a new attitude. For example, he still read books. That brings us to one of my favorite quotes: “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing…if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t think rationally, you will think irrationally” (52). The point is, we continue going to school, going to work, doing many of the same things we did before, but with a new attitude:

“All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials…There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such” (54-55).

Of course, Lewis asserts, some activities must be stopped in living the Christian life. But the majority are done still. To perhaps put it most simply, the work of Beethoven, the work of preachers and missionaries, the work of making dinner for your kids or spouse, the work of mowing the lawn, of being an engineer, businessperson or teacher become spiritual as they are offered to God. If done for any other reason, even the holiest things are worthless.

Christians are members of one body, one community, but we remain different people with different vocations (callings). So returning specifically to being at the university, pursuing knowledge is a wonderful thing as far as it is done to the glory of God: “The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us” (57).

Lewis does not stop at concluding that the academic life of university study is permitted, but he continues in saying that it is essential. It is essential in order for us to be able to communicate with the world around us, to meet people on their own ground.

“To be ignorant and simple now – not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground – would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but as against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered” (58).

This essay provides vital lessons for campus ministers and Christians at the university. For campus ministers, are we encouraging our students in their calling to their majors and careers? For students, do you recognize that your major is a calling from God and thus your career itself is holy work?

Summer in Thessalonica – Grace and Work

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…all the Kings’s horses and all the king’s men….couldn’t put Humpty together again

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound….that saved a wretch like me…I once was lost, but now am found…was blind, but now I see.

God shows his love for us in this…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Romans 5:8

I wonder if sometimes we forget the simplicity of it all? Certainly there is the danger that faith remains a shallow, self-centered, overly simple, completely focused on me, my problems and going to heaven when I die sort of thing. But another danger is of making it too complicated and complex. Do not misunderstand: there is a complexity, profundity, depth and beauty to our faith. But in the midst of this, we cannot forget the simplicity of it.

Grace. God loves you just the way you are. Jesus, God in the flesh, became human and sacrificed himself in order to save us. There is nothing we did to earn this love, nothing we can do to earn this love. Nothing we do can make God love us more or make God love us less. To put it most simply, grace is the fact that God loves us just because…just because that is who God is.

This simple truth is one of the foundations of our faith: God loves us just the way we are, just because. God wants a relationship with us, which is why Jesus came to us.

Along with such simple truths is another one: God loves us just the way we are but refuses to let us stay that way. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, and the Holy Spirit lives in us to make us holy.

This is what Paul prays for the Thessalonian church as he closes his letter:

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.

25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us. 26 Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss. 27 I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Sanctify” means “to make holy“. To be sanctified, as Paul is speaking of here, is to be more like Jesus Christ. We are reminded that Jesus called on his followers to be perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48).

The vital truth to remember is just as we cannot save ourselves in the first place, so we cannot make ourselves holy in the second place. To bring the two things together: grace is not just what gives us forgiveness in the beginning, as we believe in Jesus, grace is also what makes us holy as we live with Jesus.

Notice that Paul does not tell them to work to make themselves holy. Instead he prays that God would do this in them. We are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to become holy. Further, we can be confident that God “will do it” (v. 24). Or as Paul puts it in his letter to the church at Philippi: “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). We are made holy by the Holy Spirit of God, who grows the fruit of the spirit in us (Gal. 5:22-23).

Perhaps here is where we must wade carefully into the deeper waters of theology, as the question naturally comes to mind: if God does this in us, do we just do nothing? Do we sit around and wait for this to happen? If I do not feel particularly holy, is it because God has not made me such and therefore I am off the hook and able to do as I please?

God making us holy, sanctifying us, by his Holy Spirit does not mean we too do not have things to do. We have to allow God to work in us. Back in 4:1 Paul says he instructed them on how to live and he urges them to do this more and more, a few verses later he says that God calls us to live a pure life and those who reject this instruction reject the Holy Spirit (4:7-8). The obvious implication is that it is possible to reject this instruction, possible to choose not to live in this way, to not allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.

Other scriptures tell us to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts (1 Pet. 3:15) and to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Clearly, our role is to open our lives to the Holy Spirit, to allow God to change us.

When we fail, when we mess up, as we will, there is always forgiveness. There is always additional grace, because God still loves just the way we are but does not want us to stay that way.

The goal of this, at least just a few examples from the letter to Thessalonians, is to strengthen us so “that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders” (3:12) and so that we will “be kind to each other and to everyone else” (5:15).

Left to ourselves, we cannot do these things. But if we remember that God loves us just the way we are (grace) but refuses to leave us that way (makes us holy, also by grace) I think we’ll be on the right track.

A Little History is a Good Thing

In the year 1347 a merchant ship docked in the port of Genoa, in Italy. Three years later 1/3 of the population of Europe, 30 million people, were dead. This ship landing in Genoa brought the black plague to European shores and despite the best efforts to stop its spread, spread it did. These were the days prior to knowledge of viruses which made the plague all the more terrifying. A person could be perfectly healthy one day and dead the next with no idea what caused the infection. People lived in near constant fear that they would get sick and die in days if not hours. Many could only conclude it was judgment from God.

I have always enjoyed reading history and I have been checking a lot of history books out of the public library this summer. Reading history, something many find dull, is fun! But it is also educational, and I believe it helps keep me sane.

What I mean by this can be demonstrated by simply turning on your television and watching the news. News commentators, political analysts, and even religious talking heads often speak as if the end of the world is drawing near. Whether it is the environment being destroyed and in turn humanity dying out, or terrorists attacking, or the economy tanking, or the thing in your home that could kill your kids (more tonight at 6!) the mood is often fearful.

I do not want to discount the legitimate fears that people have or the suffering people are going through, but maybe this is where a bit of history helps. Most people throughout history would wake up each morning with the possibility of bandits or armies attacking their town and killing everyone. If that did not happen, there was always the possibility of a sickness killing them that today would not even cause us to miss work thanks to modern medicine.

If we look at Christian history, Christians have usually thought they were living in the final generation before the end. At times it appears the apostle Paul thought Jesus would soon return. Tertullian, and other early church fathers, believed that the Roman Empire was the only thing holding back the barbarian hordes, and with them the antichrist. Of course, Rome did fall to the barbarian hordes but the world did not end (although the whole thing caused Augustine to write the classic City of God).

Tom Holland’s book The Forge of Christendom focuses on the turn of the first millennium and all of the craziness going on at that time. Many Christians believed the 1000th anniversary of Christ’s birth would be the end of the world, or perhaps the 1000th anniversary of his death (1033 AD), or the 1000th anniversary of some other event in his life. Barbara Tuchman’s older book, A Distant Mirror, is about the turbulent 1300s, the time of the plague and many wars which all contributed to religious upheaval. Again, many thought the end was near. Later on during the 1500s as the Ottoman Turks were pressing into Europe some thought their coming was a sign of the end and that they were an instrument of God’s judgment.

Yet the world kept turning…

I think there are lessons here. For me, it is a reminder to not lose my head and get too worried. No matter how things bad are (in America at least) they could be a lot worse: we could be dying of plagues and having to defend our houses from invading armies. Perhaps we hear religious people talking about signs that the end is near, that Jesus is soon going to return. Maybe, but a little history reminds us that pretty much everyone since Jesus’ ascension into heaven expected him to return in their generation. Jesus’ return now is just as likely as it was in the 1500s, the 1300s and the 900s.

Second, as Christians, may we live out a confidence in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is the Creator, Savior and Sustainer of all that is, was or ever will be. Do we too quickly forget that God is sovereign, in control? Through the ages, the people of God have had confidence that God is in control and no matter what happens, even death, cannot separate us from the Savior’s love. The early Christians believed that when they faced persecution God would either save them in this life, or they would die and God would save them through that. Either way, they would be with God. So the question is, do we have a long view of things, beyond this life and into the very presence of God? Do we believe that no matter what happens, if we stick with God through thick and thin we will be okay in the very end no matter what happens now?

On my best days I believe that. Often I don’t. My prayer is that I believe it more often.

Summer in Thessalonica – How Should We Live?

5:4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

19 Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject whatever is harmful.

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.

How are we to live? We are saved by grace through faith, we are not saved by any work we do…but we are saved for the purpose to do good works (Eph. 2:8-10). In other words, we are not saved by works, but we are save for works.

Paul contrasts darkness with light here. In the beginning God spoke light into darkness (Genesis 1:1-5). Jesus is the light of the world, shining into the darkness (John 1:1-5). And those who put their hope and trust in Jesus are children of light (Ephesians 5:8). Being in the light of Christ then, we are also new creations, as 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 makes clear:

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Doing good works becomes a natural part of who we are as new creations. If you are saved by grace and are a new creation in Christ, then the works will come. This could be taken the wrong way, so let me be clear, it does not mean we will not fail. It does not mean we will be perfect in this life. It simply means that as we submit ourselves to Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit of God will work a change in us, we will be set on the path of holiness (a nice theological word for this is sanctification). I believe it just kind of happens, the same way apple trees naturally produce apples (Galatians 5:22-23).

As we move through Paul’s letter to the Christians in Thessalonica we see him giving practical instructions in regards to these works a Christian produces.

First, we become people of faith, hope and love (5:8).

We encourage and build each other up (5:11).

We are to acknowledge (respect, appreciate) those who lead our church communities, serve as our mentors, care for us, and even confront us with challenging words (admonish) when necessary (5:12-13). When leaders are supported, there is peace in the community (5:13).

Some in the Thessalonian church were idle. But they were not just lazy, they were busy doing the wrong things: being disruptive, causing all kinds of problems (think gossip, for example). Paul mentions the same people in his second letter (2 Thess. 3:6-13). Every person in the Christian community is to use their gifts to serve God in whatever way they have been called. To put it another way: go to work, work hard, do your job well!

We encourage the disheartened, distressed, depressed, those having struggles of faith (5:14). It is not just spiritual things that concern us, we help the physically weak, those who are sick or hungry (5:14). Furthermore, we have patience with everyone. While the rest of the world is quick to seek revenge, we follow Jesus in not paying back wrong for wrong (5:15). Instead, when evil is done to us we repay it with good! Christians strive for what is good for the church, and also the entire world (“everyone else” – 5:15).

We rejoice, pray and give thanks continually (5:16-18). The natural temptation is to let our circumstances dictate how we feel, so that we are thankful when things are good but angry when they are not. Opposed to this, Christians seek to understand that God is in control when things are good or bad and thus, with our trust in Him, we are joyful and thankful and prayerful no matter what we are going through.

We are open to instruction from the Holy Spirit (5:19-22). Today this primarily comes to us through the Word of God found in the Bible. So we are not to ignore scriptural teaching (5:20) and we are to wisely test all teachers based on the revealed truths of God (5:21). From this we hold on to the good and reject the harmful teachings (5:22). I know that many college students today (not that this is a new thing) tend to think truth is pretty much whatever you feel. Many of you, even Christians, trust your feelings, emotions, intuition or reason. My prayer is that we would recognize the authority of God through Scripture in our life, and that this authority would teach and correct us (2 Timothy 3:16).

On that note, where is the Spirit speaking to us through Scripture today? These are some very practical instructions. Which of these areas are you convicted in? Where is the Spirit speaking to you? What aspect of your own life must you focus on?

Ask God to empower you by his Holy Spirit to grow in your faith, hope, love and life in Christ.

Souls in Transition – Conclusion

The final chapter of Souls in Transition serves as a summarizing conclusion. First of all, we must recognize that emerging adulthood is a new phase of American life between adolescence and adulthood. It is a phase of life filled with “disruptions, transitions, and distractions” (280). Applied to campus ministry, we are reminded that college students are not adolescent teenagers anymore (well, some still are), but they are not yet full adults. They are in a unique stage of life and therefore pose unique challenges to sustaining religious life.

Second, “the primary conclusion about emerging adult religion, therefore, is not one of change but of continuity. More often than not, what’s past is prologue” (282). From this, “the myth of overall religious decline among emerging adults must be dispelled” (283). I think it is common belief in evangelical churches that leaving home at age eighteen, especially if you go to college, is a tremendous challenge to faith that causes the fall of myriads of young people. Maybe you have heard that young people are deserting the church in droves. The truth is that while a greater number of emerging adults decline in their faith then become more religious, many others remain committed. In other words

*many who are religious as teenagers continue on in religion

*few who are not religious become religious

*a lot who are nominally religious become non-religious, most of those are already on the way out prior to entering adulthood.

Third, the authors remind us of the importance of parents. I wrote a whole post on that so I will not repeat it here, other than to say, parents play a gigantic role in the faith lives of their children!

Fourth, though liberal Protestant churches are rapidly shrinking, their core values, “individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the authority of human experience” (288), have triumphed in coming to permeate American culture. The authors site H. Richard Niebuhr who said, in 1937, that liberal faith is about “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” (288). Many emerging adults would be comfortable with this type of religion. Another way to put it is what the authors have elsewhere called Moral Therapeutic Deism.

Fifth, at the same time, the evangelical (fundamentalist) tradition has also permeated American culture in many ways. One example of this is the “central evangelical insistence on the ultimate consequence of each individual’s salvation in standing alone before a holy God that emerging adults are resonating when they articulate their radically individualistic view of religious faith and practice” (290). Another inheritance from traditional evangelicalism is emerging adults “anti-institutional view of religion” This individualistic subjectivism is seen when emerging adults focus on their own personal experience and feelings:

It thus became the sacred right and responsibility of all individuals to read the Bible and understand it for themselves…thus, having democratized to every individual the full authority to know religious truth for themselves, yet having failed thereby to produce anything like an agreement about what the Bible actually teaches, evangelical biblicism set up powerful religious cultural structures that, it so happens, govern many non-evangelical (and evangelical) adults today. Young American’s assurance that the Bible, or any other alleged authority, contains the truth by which to live has, compared to evangelical convictions, been severely weakened. And in the intervening years, for complicated reasons, final authority has decisively shifted from the Bible to the individual reader. But most emerging adults’ basic assumption that it is the right and responsibility of each individual to decide religious truth for himself or herself – based on his or her own “reading’ of relevant matters – is in fact simply one cultural mutation away from historical evangelical orthodoxy (291)

In other words, evangelicals so emphasized the importance of your own decision about what you will believe that now the individual, not the Bible, is at the center of the religion of emerging adults. So the question is not, what does the Bible say? Instead it is, how do I feel? Other cultural factors have contributed to this, which leads us to…

Sixth, emerging adults have experienced a crisis in knowledge and value, for to them, in the end, it’s all relative (293). They simply do not have the tools to decide what is good, right or true and thus live with “a troubling uncertainty about basic knowledge and values” (293). Because of this, many emerging adults do not even know what to do with their prized, individualistic freedom.

Seventh, there is a diversity in the types and trajectories of religious life. We cannot simply say that emerging adults are religious, or spiritual but not religious. Instead we can, still oversimplifying, group them into various groups (see here).

Finally, eighth, religion is significantly correlated with, perhaps even a cause of, positive life outcomes. Not the type of religion, but the level of commitment, produces quite different results in everyday life. Thus, religion matters. Perhaps that is one of the most important lessons: religion is not going away. It may be changing in some ways, for better or worse, but it is still here.

Summer in Thessalonica – Flatland and the End

Two years ago I read a fun little book called Flatland. It begins in a two-dimensional world (flatland, like one you would draw on a piece of paper) with the main character, a Square, telling his story. In the story the Square is visited by a three-dimensional Sphere from Spaceland. But having never lived in three dimensions, the Square cannot conceive of a land different from Flatland. “Up” and “Down” are meaningless words. When the Sphere enters Flatland he appears flat. The Square has to visit Spaceland to understand it.

Also in the story, the Square has two dreams. First he enters Lineland, a universe that is simply a line. Here the Square tries to convince the residents of Lineland, all of whom are points on the line, of the existence of two dimensional Flatland. He fails. In the second dream he enters Pointland, a universe that is one single point and thus consists of just one resident. When the Square communicates with this Universe Point, the Point is convinced the communication comes from inside his own mind as he cannot conceive another being other than himself.

It is a short and interesting book. Of course, you and I live in three-dimensional Spaceland. We are moving through time and cannot conceive of an existence outside of time. I cannot fathom of living in a universe where I can see all points of time in the present (for example, seeing my whole life all at once). Yet for centuries, perhaps oversimplifying a few theological debates here and there, this is how Christians have understood God. God, our Creator and Sustainer, exists outside of time: your birth and death are all present to him at once, just as the birth and death of the universe are present. He is not confined by or within time.

Philosophers, theologians and those with too much time on their hands debate about how exactly this works. No one knows, because stuck in our finite, three-dimensional existence, we cannot ultimately fathom the workings of an infinite God. But Christians also believe, absolutely central to our faith, that God reveals himself to us: from speaking through the writers of scripture, to speaking to us through the Holy Spirit. Primarily and most clearly, God has entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-Man. It is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we find forgiveness, adoption into the family of God and new life.

All of that to say that I wonder if we argue and debate and in general misunderstand the “end-times” because, like Spaceland to the Square, it is a whole new level of existence (new heaven and new earth) beyond our current understanding. Last week we looked at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and focused on the fact that Christians have hope in the face of death:

4:13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Paul did not write this to offer fodder for later theologians to speculate on how exactly the second-coming was going to work. Rather, the point is to encourage the Thessalonian Christians to have hope in the face of death, knowing that all those in Christ will be united in God’s presence for all eternity (see last week’s e-mail).

Still, phrases like “the coming of the Lord” and “the Lord himself will come down from heaven” give us pause. Other texts, such as Matthew 24, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21-22 give us images of what the new heaven and new earth will be like. I am not saying we can know absolutely nothing about these future realities. There is enough in Scripture to paint a picture that when Jesus returns, when the veil is removed and heaven and earth are made one, it is going to be beautiful beyond our wildest imaginings. The truth of Jesus Christ’s return has been a central part of our faith since the beginning, it is the hope of the church and all Christians. It influences all we do, for we know we do not serve, minister and evangelize in vain: we fight against sin in our lives knowing Jesus will one day cleanse us, we serve the poor and sick knowing Jesus will one day remove all hunger and disease, we call people to worship Jesus knowing one day every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

My point is that while the Bible gives us enough to begin to understand a little bit of what our future existence in the presence of God will be like, it does not give us a fully detailed exposition. There is enough to motivate us, but not enough to distract us. In other words, there is enough to move us to live as followers of Jesus, but not enough so that we just sit in our rooms waiting to die and enter God’s presence. I am reminded of the words of Ephesians 2:8-10 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are saved by grace, not by anything we have done. And we are saved for a purpose, to do good works. We should get to work and not worry about times and dates, as Paul goes on to say in the next part of the letter:

5:1Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

4But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing

Do not spend your time worrying about when the end will come. Instead, live each day with your hope and trust for your life and work in Jesus Christ.

Souls in Transition – Does Religion Make a Difference?

Does religion matter when it comes to how emerging adults live? Does your religion make a difference in your everyday choices?

This is the theme of the ninth chapter of Souls in Transition. In previous chapters emerging adults had been divided into religious groups: conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant, black Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, other religion and not religious. But the research found that being in any one of these groups did not greatly increase or decrease the probability of living differently compared to others in a different group.

Yet there are differences in how emerging adults live when the focus is shifted not to religious traditions but to differences in religious commitment and practices. In other words, how committed you are, not the group you are in, is what makes the difference. From this, they found four types of emerging adults:

1. The Devoted – Attend religious services weekly or more, faith is very important in daily life, feel very close to God, pray a few times each week or more, read scripture a few times each month.

2. The Regular – Attend religious services 2-3 times a month, faith ranges from very to not very important in life, closeness to God, prayer and scripture reading are variable, but less religious than the Devoted.

3. The Sporadic – Attend religious services a few times a year, faith ranges from somewhat to not very important, closeness to God, prayer and scripture reading vary

4. The Disengaged – never attend religious services, or do so very rarely, faith is not very important, feel only somewhat close to God or less, pray 1-2 times a month, read scripture 1-2 times a month or less.

For almost every specific practice the researchers studied, the Devoted live very differently from the Disengaged, with the Regular and Sporadic somewhere in between. For example, the Devoted have better relationship with parents, give and volunteer more, care more for poor and elderly and racial unity, drink and smoke less, are depressed less often and are more likely to feel like life has meaning. They look at many other practices, but you get the idea.

So what does this mean? They conclude that “religion still matters in ways that make a difference in a variety of relationships, attitudes, experiences, and behaviors, even among 18- to 23-year-olds, and especially the most highly religious” (276).

It is significant to me that they had to change the groupings of emerging adults for this chapter. What this seems to indicate is that it doesn’t matter what religion the person is for how they live, what matters is how devoted they are. So a committed Jew and a committed conservative Protestant live more similarly than a committed conservative Protestant and a not committed conservative Protestant.

These findings reminds me that making a decision to believe in Jesus Christ is merely a first step. It is a vitally important step, but the life of discipleship is a long and difficult one. In other words, belief in terms of assenting to the truth that Jesus is Lord, is the beginning. Allowing that belief to become a trust that transforms you in your life is the next step.

Of course, we do not want to remove grace from the equation. Simply not living in these admirable ways does not mean one is not saved. Certainly many who truly believe and hope in Jesus Christ would live more like the disengaged then the devoted. Interestingly, throughout the book has been a subtle emphasis on community: who you surround yourself influences you. The encouragement is that if we take the time to be part of a community, to pursue the journey of faith together, we will grow as Christians.

The obvious question, and this is a question I have been asked often, is why do non-Christians live better than Christians if Christianity is unique? What happens to sincere followers of other religions? This is a huge question that would require a long, many-sided answer. To be as simple as possible, I love this quote from Tim Keller’s amazing book The Reason for God:

The Biblical doctrine of the universal image of God, therefore, leads Christians to expect non-believers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them. The Biblical doctrine of universal sinfulness also leads Christians to expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them…Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf (The Reason for God, 19)

Of course people of all religions and no religion at all will live moral lives. That is admirable. But we are reminded that we are not saved by our good works, or lack thereof, but by grace alone.

Summer in Thessalonica – Hope in Death

At seven feet and seven inches tall, weight 225 pounds, Manute Bol was the skinniest players in the NBA. He was never a great player, averaging only about three points per game, but he did manage to make a fortune playing basketball. Manute Bol went broke by giving most of his six million dollars to refugees from his home country of Sudan. After his death last week at age 47, one Twitter post summed him up: “Most NBA cats go broke on cars, jewelry & groupies. Manute Bol went broke building hospitals.

I grew up in the Evangelical Congregational Church, a denomination whose US headquarters and most churches are in Pennsylvania but also with many churches throughout the globe in India, Costa Rica, Liberia and Japan. The head of the American EC Church, Bishop Kevin Leibensperger, died in a car accident on June 1 at age 54. Over 1,000 friends, colleagues and others whose lives were affected by his ministry turned out for the funteral.

Both of these men were dedicated Christians who used their gifts to serve God, one as a basketball player and one as a pastor. It was not their gifts that saved them, it was God’s grace. Thus, while we grieve their deaths we also have hope. For a Christian, death is not the end. This does not mean we approach death with no emotion, it is still sad to lose somebody, as anyone who has lost a friend or family member can attest to. But grieving as Christians takes on a different flavor then grieving by those who have no hope of a life beyond this one. This is specifically what Paul writes about the the Thessalonians:

4:13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The Christians in Thessalonica were living as if there was no hope of a final resurrection, of a reunion with their Christian brothers and sisters who had already died. Paul’s desire is to teach them.

Today many Christians are still misinformed about the end-times, about our future life in God’s presence. This text is one of many places that shed light on our questions. The main point here is that we can have hope that we will be with the Lord forever (4:17). This is a hope that others who think this life is all there is do not have, they have no hope (4:13). Further, this is a hope that encompasses two groups of people: those dead when Jesus returns, and those alive when Jesus returns.

Those who are asleep in death (4:13) are with Jesus (“have fallen asleep with him” – 4:14). They are physically dead (asleep) but spiritually alive with Christ (see Philippians 1:21-23). There is a separation between the body, laying in the grave, and the spirit, in God’s presence. But this is not the final state. Many Christians wrongly think that the goal is to leave the body and go to heaven as a spirit for all eternity. This leaves out the resurrection. Remember, God created matter and it is good (Genesis 1). Jesus came as a human, with a body just like yours and mine. After his death Jesus rose from the dead in a body, new and renewed, but still a body. Just as Jesus has risen so too will we rise from the dead one day (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). This will occur at the end of all things, when Jesus returns: “the dead in Christ will rise” (4:16). The physically dead bodies will rise, made new, and be united with the spirit. Our final existence will be one as a unity of body and spirit in the new creation (new heavens and new earth, Revelation 21-22).

This may seem a bit heavy and theological, even wandering into the “what difference does it make?” category. A full answer to this is outside the point of today’s post. Briefly though, bodily resurrection from the dead is one of the central truths unique about Christianity. Just floating away as spirits to heaven in a disembodied existence was a common belief in the Greek and Roman religions of Jesus’ day. Such a message is not really “good news”, it is “old news”. Also, a belief that our body, and all of creation, will be made new, motivates us to both take care of our body and creation. There is a continuity meaning that who we are allowing the Spirit to make us into now is the path to who we will become for all eternity.

Back to our text. As the resurrection of the dead happens with Jesus’ final coming, those who are alive will immediately be transformed, body and spirit, into new creations (4:17). Both those alive and those dead will experience this resurrection together (those alive will not precede those dead, 4:15) and will be with the Lord forever in the new creation (4:17; new heavens and earth made one – Revelation 21-22).

The question then is, how do we face death? As Christians, do we react to death in the same way as those who have no hope? Or do we set an example with our hope that death is not a final goodbye, but more of a see you later (setting an example to outsiders is still in mind, see 4:11-12). We certainly grieve, even Jesus wept at the death of a friend (John 11:35). But our grief is hopeful, not hopeless.

I have been lucky not to lose many people close to me. If a close friend or family member died, I am not sure how I would handle it. Would my grief be different then those who have no hope? Honestly, I cannot answer that now. But I do like how Paul ends this passage in 4:18. When death happens, hopeful grieving cannot be done alone, rather, we must encourage each other. It is not as individuals, but as a Christian community, that we grieve with hope in a future reunion.