1&2 Thessalonians

The church at Thessalonica was founded by Paul on his second missionary journey in about 49 AD. He most likely wrote this letter in about 50 or 51 AD, meaning the church (the newly converted believers) was relatively young. Their background was mainly pagan Gentiles (although there were some believing Jews included in the original reader). There were several religious cults in the region that practiced sexual perversion in their worship, which might have left these believers weak in the area of sexual morality.

Paul addresses this issue when he exhorted them to abstain from sexual immorality:

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God…

1 Thess 4:3

If you yourself were faced with a bunch of believers having sex outside of marriage, or persistent in some kind of obvious sin, how would you respond?

After studying Paul’s epistles and his ministry in Acts, I’ve noticed that he really knows how to address his audience’s struggles with sin. Sometimes he responds with a harsh rebuke (like when the church in Galatia had started following a different gospel):

As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

Galatians 1:9

Paul is serious about false teaching concerning the gospel of grace through faith. But Paul wasn’t harsh with the Thessalonians, and I think that’s for several reasons.

Bishop Group 1
Our entire school at a little retreat to a lovely mountain town called Bishop

First of all, they were newly-converted Christians still trying to develop renewed thinking toward sexual morality within a culture that had no reverence to God and His way for mankind’s sexuality. Second, Paul probably saw the genuineness of their faith proven through their perseverance in spite of persecution. Third, though they were struggling with sin, their hearts were sold out for the Lord, and so Paul wasn’t as concerned about coming down on a behavioral issue, understanding that the Spirit was still taking them through the process of sanctification.

In another words, they were young Christians trying their best. Paul probably acknowledged that, leading him to react with graciousness. He didn’t let them off the hook, but wrapped his rebuke between so much encouragement and love, which, I can only imagine, led to a favorable and effective response from the Thessalonians:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thess 1:2,3

 

For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God…

1 Thess 1:9

 

So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us…

1 Thess 2:8

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Exploring a cave at Bishop

So even though the Thessalonians weren’t perfect in every area of their lives (like sexual immorality), Paul called out their strengths and wasn’t afraid of their struggle. I think that if Paul had allowed his human nature to take over, he might have come down on them harshly in judgment, reacting fearfully to their sin, which might have actually done the Thessalonians more harm than good.

Paul also probably knew how to best react to the Thessalonians through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. If God had wanted him to speak more harshly, I think that God would have led Paul do that, just like when Paul spoke boldly to the Galatians in the above example or the Roman believers below:

Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God.

Romans 15:15

God gave grace to Paul when speaking to people boldly and harshly, showing me that God also probably led Paul in his graciousness toward the Thessalonians. In other words, Paul responded to the Thessalonians in fear of the Lord.

I love that, because I know that God also wants to gives us guidance, grace, wisdom and strength in confronting people with hard truth as well, not systematically, but in His grace by His Spirit.

In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he mainly addresses their belief that Jesus is coming back soon and their idleness that resulted:

Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

2 Thess 3:11,12

The Thessalonians were unwilling to work, meaning they had become lazy. Paul attempted to correct this mentality by showing them that the willingness to work was actually what was right and pleasing in God’s eyes. This was true even if Jesus’ return was imminent.

2 Thessalonians also refers to end time events. The “lawless one” is mentioned in 2 Thess 2 but in no other book of the Bible. The “lawless one” could also mean “son of destruction” or “man of sin.”

Some view the “lawless one” as a future Antichrist linked to the prophecies given in the Book of Daniel regarding the nation of Israel. Some have viewed the lawless one as the Roman Catholic Church. Some say that this was the Roman military commander Titus who ordered the destruction of the temple in 70 AD after the Jews rebelled in 66 AD. This view, to me, makes the most immediate sense, although I haven’t studied enough to come to any conclusion.

The Book of James and Galatians: Fear of the Lord and Faith

The Book of James was probably written sometime around 49 AD (although some believe it to be written at a later date) to Jewish believers. The main purpose of the book was to show the Jews that it wasn’t enough for them to profess faith in Jesus, but that genuine faith would be evidenced by the works in their lives.

Although initially this message seems contradictory to the gospel, that one is saved through faith and not works, all James is saying is that one’s faith is proven by the fruit of their lives.

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:24

According to the Hebrew-Greek Lexicon, the word “justified” can mean “to show, exhibit, evince…” So it’s not saying that someone can save themselves by earning it, which totally contradicts the message of free salvation through faith.

Real, active faith causes the believer to make decisions in life that can only come from a trusting relationship with God. Going to church and doing church service is great, but doesn’t necessarily require a lot of faith. Active faith can only come from relationship with Him. It’s the kind of faith that changes people’s lives:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2:14-17

On an unrelated topic, what God really spoke to me through the Book of James was the importance of communicating with full honesty of heart. Even if my heart is wrong about something, if I communicate it, that’s when it can be brought to the light and be healed. I don’t want to speak based off what other people want to hear or what I’ve been taught, but I want to speak in fear of the Lord as best I can. Not that I can ever be perfect in teaching (and thankfully God doesn’t require me to), but I do want to speak only from my own convictions and understanding, not someone else’s:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle

James 3:1,2

We also studied the Book of Galatians, which for me, is one of the most powerful books so far from the New Testament. It just brings so much light to the truth of the freedom we have in Christ.

Paul wrote this letter to the churches of Galatia who were struggling with the concept of circumcision. Though they had initially believed they were saved through faith alone, an antagonistic group called the Judaizers tried to convince them otherwise:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:1,2

This teaching about freedom from the law brought healing in my relationship with God. Without being aware of it, I thought that if I didn’t earn my way, either through being right or through being perfectly righteous or what have you, God wouldn’t respond to any of my prayers.

Even as I typed up this blog entry, I prayed that God would lead me in my writing so that I could communicate with integrity, and this little thought of fear popped up that said, “Oh you haven’t done enough or spoken enough to Him today to earn that prayer.” I thank God that He’s brought this wrong way of thinking to light so that I can push back this religious mindset and be free in my relationship with Him throughout the day!

Every part of our relationship with God and what we’ve received through Christ comes through faith. This is why it’s so important to build a trusting relationship with God and remove any doubt of His love and goodness toward us from our minds. If we constantly doubt Him and His love for us, how can we ever come to fulfill the greatest commandment?

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

Matthew 22:37

And even this process of removing doubt and fear comes through faith alone! If we truly believe we can get to this point of love for God, then we will receive it, because it is God’s will that we love Him with all of our heart, soul and mind:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Matthew 5:6

If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.

Matthew 21:22

Along with the concept of faith, I’m starting to believe in dreams again. I didn’t even realize it, but I had become skeptical of them. Maybe that’s because my life hasn’t necessarily turned out the way I imagined it, but I’m realizing that that’s probably a good thing. God has been blessing me beyond my imagination, especially in this season of studying the Bible. He’ been leading me to start believing again, but this time to dream with Him, not just through my own narrow, self-centered lens. And he’s been teaching me to not focus on the challenges that stand in the way because that is the destroyer of faith.

But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:30,31

Thank you God, that you have made a way for us to walk in the way Jesus did, through faith, as Your children!

For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

Galatians 5:5,6

 

…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

Galatians 3:26

A Life Transformed in the Holy Spirit

After studying the Old Testament for six months, jumping into the Acts of Apostles was like jumping into an overflowing pool of color and life (I really don’t know how else to describe this) because of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. But the same Spirit did work and move in the Old Testament narratives and prophecies.

For instance, Joshua received the Spirit and ended up miraculously leading the Israelites to conquer much of the Promised Land. God also gave it to those who brought deliverance to the Israelites in the period of judges, and to those who rebuilt the temple:

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Deuteronomy 34:9

Then the spirit of the Lord rushed on [Samson], and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle.

Judges 14:19

And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God…

Haggai 1:14

God gave His spirit to Saul, Israel’s first king, and David, their second king:

And the spirit of God came upon Saul in power when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled.

1 Samuel 11:6

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.

1 Samuel 16:13

God also put His Spirit in the priests and prophets:

Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, “Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.”

2 Chronicles 24:20

But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.

Micah 3:8

The Spirit was always given in the Old Testament to do the impossible. In the New Testament, the Spirit was given to any who believed in Jesus as Lord.

Belief in the Lord Jesus didn’t end there, but was always accompanied with being filled with the Holy Spirit. If it wasn’t, then the apostles had to make sure that the people did receive the Holy Spirit:

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus).

Acts 8:14-16

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.”  On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied…

Acts 19:1-6

This tells me that repentance and belief in Jesus was just as important as

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receiving the Holy Spirit.  This is because it’s only through faith in the Spirit that mankind can do the impossible, just like it was only by God’s Spirit in the Old Testament that a human (Joshua) could drive out most of the nations from the Promised Land.

In Acts,the Spirit worked through the apostles powerfully to establish the foundation of the church:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition…

Acts 4:8,13-14

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.

Acts 4:31

Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles…Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women…

Acts 5:12,14

Even though today the foundation of the church has already been laid, the Spirit still has much work to do in us and through us that is impossible without Him. For instance, it is impossible to overcome our human nature without His help. How can we possibly love God with all of our strength without God’s Spirit inside of us?

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

Luke 10:27

Now obviously through Jesus’ forgiveness, we are not obligated to keep the law, but just as Jesus came to fulfill the law and not abolish it (Matthew 5:17), so does God wants us to live by these truths through the transformation of our hearts.

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Marshmellow Man in Hollywood!

This transformation will only come from the inside out, not by focusing on the law, but by allowing God’s Spirit to work in us. The very purpose of the Spirit is so that we can actually follow Jesus’ example and live our lives in accordance to the law and His heart:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Ezekiel 36:26,27

It is such a relief that the purpose of God’s Spirit’s is to transform me in areas I struggle in. If it wasn’t for the Spirit working in me, I would repeat the mistakes of my parents and their parents and their parent’s parents and things would just never get better. I would struggle with my own aggravating sins and weaknesses for the rest of my life without any hope of actually overcoming them and discovering true freedom that Jesus died for.

I committed my life to Jesus in 2008, but even though I had repented and was baptized, I could only change so much without knowing how to live by the Spirit. When I was first baptized, I had only accepted the Holy Spirit as an intellectual belief because of the theology I was taught. I thought to myself, “Oh I have the Holy Spirit,” but didn’t actually actually bear much fruit of a Spirit-filled life. I might have found some more joy here and there, but inside I felt almost the same: insecure, trapped, enslaved, powerless, selfish, greedy, etc.

It wasn’t until I decided to learn how to actually live and practice walking in the Spirit that true transformation came. I became open to experiencing the Spirit in a new way even though it seemed really weird and off-putting because of what I had been taught and what I had seen.

I know that many are turned off by this focus on the Spirit’s miraculous work because of preconceived notions and/or because of the individuals who have misrepresented what being filled with the Spirit actually looks like. But my prayer for everyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of power that brings life, joy and freedom is to desire and to ask God to teach them how to live by the Spirit. It is truly is an amazing gift from God:

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear…

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Acts 2:33,38-39

The Mercy of God in the Book of Luke

The Gospel of Luke was written to Theophilus, who was most likely a Roman official (as the author addresses him as “most excellent”) that had become a believer and needed to know the history and validity of the Christian religion. Luke might have also wanted to show Jesus’ innocence to disclaim rumors that Christianity was a threat to the peace of Rome, although the message of the gospel did cause much offense.  

Luke, who was the most likely author, was a Gentile believer who probably wrote the book with a Gentile audience in mind (along with Theophilus). He therefore gave the lineage dating all the way back to Adam, where as Matthew, whose audience was probably primarily Jewish, only gave the lineage back to Abraham, their forefather, whom they would have been familiar with: 

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

Matthew 1:1-16

 

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli…son of Judah, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham…son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.

Luke 3:23-38

Here are some other characteristics that are unique to the Gospel of Luke:

  • Highlights the story of Elizabeth and Mary who gave birth to John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively
  • Contains the “Good Samaritan” and “Prodigal Son” parables (there are others that are unique to Luke, too)
  • Mentions prayer more times than any other gospel
  • Omits the condemnation of the Pharisees/scribes 
  • Focuses on the poor

For the Book of Luke we didn’t get to study it in-depth, but we did get to pick a parable to study.

Parables were meant to reveal a heart attitude of the original hearers of the message. They were culturally relevant, so it’s important to view the parable from the original hearer’s eyes to get the “punch” the message was supposed to bring. For instance, the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan would have exposed the hatred for Samaritans in the Jews’ heart. 

We learned that in studying parables, you must:

  • Identify who Jesus was speaking to when giving the parable
  • Identify the points of references in the parable (so like the characters, the setting, etc)
  • Identify the unexpected twist that happens in each parable (which gives the parable its power/efficacy)

To interpret it, you then must:

  • Identify whose hearts were exposed and of what sin (so, if Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, their hearts would have been exposed to hatred)
  • Interpret the intended response (e.g., humility, repentance, etc)

One of the parables I chose to study was the parable of the barren fig tree, which is also unique to Luke’s Gospel:

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9

So here’s the brief analysis:

  1. Audience – The crowds of people following Jesus (Identified from Luke 12:54)
  2. Points of Reference – An owner of a fig tree, his gardener, the fig tree.
  3. Unexpected Turn – The gardener tries to persuade the owner to give him three years for the tree to produce fruit instead of cutting it down right away.
  4. Who gets caught/heart attitude exposed – The crowds of people lacked mercy and graciousness toward sinners, thinking that the Galileans and those killed by the tower of Siloam deserved their punishment (see verses 13:13:1-5). But Jesus was showing them that anyone who repented would be forgiven.  
  5. Response from original hearer – They should have been humbled, knowing that God showed mercy and grace toward those who submitted to Him.

Studying this parable using this basic format (and the context surrounding the parable), I saw that the crowds probably would have expected the gardener to go ahead and just take down the fruitless fig tree, but instead he asks for more time. This would have shown the original hearers that God is gracious and would show mercy to anyone who repented (since this is what Jesus was teaching in the paragraph just before this). The original hearers shouldn’t have thought that they were better than other sinners. Every single human on earth is at God’s mercy, no matter how “good” or how “bad” someone is. 

The truth for today teaches that we are all sinners who are in need of God. It’s an important truth to meditate on to keep humble when tempted to devalue others based off their sin. Everyone’s need for God’s mercy and forgiveness is the great equalizer of us all!