How God Does it

I. The duty of a church in showing respect and gratitude to those who teach the word. (12, 13)

A. An apostolic request is in reality a regulation for church order. When the apostle beseeches or requests in a matter concerning church polity or internal relations, it is more than a kind suggestion, but has the force of a regulation. This request is precisely what the members of the congregation are to do in order to pursue good church order that will be for the joy and maturity of everyone in the Lord.

B. ”Appreciate,” “value,” “respect,” “pay deference” all are attempts to get at the word “to know.” The word has an intensity about it—to understand, to sympathize with approval. Paul says, “I beseech you to get to know the pastors/elders in the difficult responsibilities placed upon them by their calling. Their task is no light matter and the more you know them in their God-given responsibility the more you will value and appreciate the eternally consequential tasks set before them.”

C. What are somethings these men do that will garner such appreciation from those who observe fruitfully and with purpose?

    1. They labor among the people of the church. Their labor is difficult and calls for a significant outlay of energy, both physical and emotional.
    2. Their task toward you is a stewardship from God. They are “over you” or “stand in front of you” for the Lord’s sake. They will be held accountable for the care and accuracy with which they have ministered to your growth in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. Paul has laid the foundation and now, “Let each one take care how he builds upon it.” Gold, jewels, precious stones, or wood, hay, and stubble all will be tried, some to be refined beautifully and the other to be burnt up (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). If we know the increased intensity of judgment to be meted out to those with such a stewardship, we will sympathize the more and value their work and make real efforts to benefit spiritually from their labors.
    3. These laborers place things before our minds. They use the word of God in their admonitions and instructions. Their task is to give opportunity for the renewing of the mind in order that believers may learn to discern the will of God, to be more skilled in apprehending the good, the well-pleasing, and the spiritually mature (Romans 12:2).

II. The duty of teachers toward the members of the church (14, 15). Paul turns his instructions toward the ones who have been placed over the church for this task. He describes other duties to which they are called. Note that the assumption in these four admonitions is that large areas for sanctification exist in all the believers.

A. They are to warn the unruly, the careless. This same word is used in verse 12 for admonish, keep order, maintain discipline, give counsel. These unruly people could be “loafers” who seem content to be without a sense of discipline. As opposed to military disciple in which specific tactics govern conduct, they were the opposite of that, without tactical purpose. That is not consistent with Christian discipleship in which time is precious and redeeming the time is necessary.

B. Faint-hearted persons, people with “little-soul,” need encouragement. Bunyan’s Mr. Faintheart needed prodding and consistent reminders of the sustaining grace of God given through the completed work of Christ. The minister must work at fitting instruction in the confidence that the gospel gives without eliminating the reality that a Christian walk involves increasing holiness and genuine progress. This twofold truth calls for constant skill in integrating them properly in efforts to encourage the little-souled believer: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but He who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18). Rotherham’s translation says, “Sooth them of little soul.” Comfort without complacency calls for compassion and insight.

C. The weak are those who seem to be peculiarly susceptible to temptation. Firm teaching like Paul has given in 4:2-8 may be the needed prescription here. Dealing with Gentiles who have just escaped from paganism that made a religion of immorality calls for very strong teaching. Truth must replace the lies that have formed their lives. They need a change of worldview, an understanding of God’s nature and his purpose for his image-bearers, peculiarly his elect. To that effect, Peter wrote admonishing believers to holiness, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, … conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:14, 17, 18).

D. None of this will be accomplished immediately. Though repentance from sin and faith in Christ involves a knowledgeable break with sin and ignorance at the threshold of salvation, the road of discipleship is long, lasts until death, and takes an unending barrage of teaching and a constant, conscious awareness of the need to mortify the flesh. Those responsible for leading the sheep into the fold of Christ’s security and beauty must be patient. They must have a long-burning fuse and a willingness to see small steps of progress sometimes followed by regression. But they will work with the confidence of the effectual power of the word of God which lays us bare before the eyes of the One with whom we have to do, to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13).

E. One of the most difficult aspects of teaching and of personal discipline in a vengeful world is the teaching of meekness, a non-retaliatory spirit. “See that no one pays another with evil for evil (15).

    1. When a Christian exhibits spiritual strength and resolution toward godliness, He is willing to endure abuse and evil-reporting and respond by seeking the good of the perpetrator.. For crimes, God will take vengeance and has delegated temporal vengeance to the state (Romans 13:3-5). Vengeance in all other matters of wrong belongs to the Lord alone who sees all things perfectly and know all the motives of the heart.
    2. In Romans 12:19-21, Paul wrote, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him.” Paul argues, under divine inspiration and in accord with Proverbs 25:22, that cruelty reciprocated by kindness heaps coals of fire on the head of the ostensible enemy. Kindness is not geared as a subtle measure of retaliation, but, in this world in which such kindness is so rare, it is in fact an occasion that bores into the conscience and can burn with the prospect of a larger justice than could be inflicted by the injured party.
    3. The writer of Hebrews 10:30 looks to that larger justice. He applies that principle of leaving vengeance to the Lord to the eternal culpability engendered by all sin, particularly the sin of refusing God’s most sublime demonstration of justice and forgiving grace. Greater than setting aside the law of Moses is a spirit of disbelief and resisting a convincing and earnest presentation of the eternal truth of the gospel. To spurn the blood of the Son of God will bring on the fullness of divine vengeance. Any evil done to us pales in comparison to this; surely all vengeance can be left to God for he alone will inflict it according to perfect justice.
    4. The manifestation of doing good in exchange for evil will be a testimony to the transforming power of the gospel and will encourage fellow-believers to do likewise. It will help create a community of forgiven forgivers. This will in turn be a testimony “for all people” that mercy has invaded this fallen world and perhaps it can be found among these Jesus-followers.
    5. Paul sees this two-fold effect of doing good in his exhortation in his letter to the Galatians, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Communities of the redeemed operate as salt and light in a dark and putrefying world.

III. In rapid-fire fashion, Paul commands the practice of several specific items that constitute the “good” of the redeemed community and will give opportunity for its growth and practice “more and more” (16-22).

A. Exhortations for personal edification and spiritual peace of mind include the next three commands.

    1. “Rejoice always.” Paul gives the same command in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Calling to mind the “hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2) in the presence of the triune God, free from sins, unhindered by distraction, and unimpeded in the enjoyment of the perfect beauty and love of God should inject true unquenchable joy into this life. The entire spectrum of blessings that ride in the train of Christ’s sacrifice infuse the believer “with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8, 9). To this we must call ourselves when we allow merely temporal matters to scatter haze on the prospects of eternity’s glory.
    2. “Pray without ceasing.” With whom should we be in conversation each day about all things? Again in Philippians, Paul expands the admonition, “Do not be anxious abut anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). He is the one who “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11) and who, in accord with the intercession of the Holy Spirit within our prayers works “all things together for good to those who love him and are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:26-28). In the same way we leave vengeance to the Lord, we leave the circumstances of our daily lives to him and submit them to him in prayer.
    3. “In everything give thanks” with the reason attached—“for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Some ambivalence exists among commentators as to whether “this” refers to the command itself, that is, to give thanks in all things, or if all included in the word ”everything” is what Paul refers to. I believe, if we take a comprehensive look at the teaching concerning God’ will for his saints, we are to give thanks for everything for the “everything” comes under the protective, sanctifying, disciplining purpose of God for his people. Hebrews 12:3-17 gives an extended discussion of God’s purpose even in the difficulties of discipline and testing. Surely thanks for those evidences of sonship and the provocation to holiness should be matters of thanksgiving.

B. The health of their congregational life depended on a growth in understanding the truth of the gospel. This was to be supplied by the special operations of the Holy Spirit when they met together. This letter was written from Corinth prior to the correspondence to the Corinthians. Together they indicate that prophetic utterances constituted one element of the instruction they received. The practice in Corinth was abundant (1 Corinthians 12-14). The dangers of counterfeit in tongues, words of knowledge, and prophecy was great and had to be regulated (12:1-3; 14:5, 6, 13, 19, 28-32 et al). In Thessalonica, the congregation was suspicious of these spiritual phenomena.

    1. Stop quenching the Spirit. These newly-formed congregations needed further instruction in new covenant truth concerning Christ, the gospel, the work of the Spirit, holiness, church life. The Spirit granted a variety of gifts for knowledge, encouragement, and a well-ordered congregational life (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 27-31). The apostles, who were first in importance and had non-transferable historical qualifications and spiritual authority, could not be in every church. More instruction was needed (3:10). The Holy Spirit gave gifts to each church for this purpose. The Thessalonians were not receiving these gifts with openness. Paul, therefore, strictly commands them, “Stop this practice of discouraging the operations of the Spirit in your fellow Christians.”
    2. The gift of prophecy was of particular importance in the absence of an immediate apostolic witness (1 Corinthians 12:28, 14:1). The church, therefore, should learn to encourage those who had been granted the gift of prophecy. They were the gifted-ones who would instruct the church under the special and immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and practice. It was to their own harm that they harbored an unhealthy and repressive suspicion of prophetic utterances.
    3. Caution, nevertheless, was necessary even in the context of encouragement. “Test so as to discover the genuineness of every prophetic utterance” 21). Several New Testament writers warn against false teachers, and where more susceptible to such danger than the actual teaching ministry within a local congregation. In Revelation 2:2, Jesus commends the church in Ephesus in that “you cannot bear those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” Other churches (Pergamum, Thyatira) were warned against false teachers in their congregations. Peter warned that “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). John warned that churches should “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. … We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:1, 6). Paul warns against those who “depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). When dealing with spiritual gifts (charismata) in the Roman church (Romans 12:3-8), concerning prophecy, Paul instructed that it must be used “according to the analogy of the faith” (6). Prophetic words must be thoroughly consistent with the apostolic delivery of the sound words and be a fitting part of that pattern of truth (2 Timothy 1:13, 14).
      • That which was found to be well-said and conforming to the beauty of apostolic teaching was to be received. They were to hold fast to it as to the word of God (21b).
      • That which was false, that is did not conform in a fitting manner to the analogy of faith, which was not within the clearly defined pattern of apostolic teaching, was to be shunned and looked upon as evil (22). The person delivering an unacceptable message could not be viewed as having the gift of prophetic utterance.
    1. The importance of prophets and their prophecies would last until the end of the apostolic era. Finally, all prophecy from those prophets given in the context of the local congregation must conform to apostolic teaching and be susceptible to the examination of an apostle: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this he is not recognized” (1 Corinthians 14:37, 38). A supposed prophet that would not gladly consent to the apostolic teaching as revealed by God, as the word of the Lord, would himself not be accepted as a prophet. When the apostles finished their preaching, teaching, and writing, and apostolic truth was complete, no new revelation was needed or to be expected. All must now arise from a conscientious and responsible use of that which is written.

IV. The redeeming God is the perfect caretaker of his people and will finally accomplish completely that which he is doing by measure through the church and his truth.

A. “Now may the God of peace” (23) – Paul loves to refer to God as the God of peace (Romans 15:33; 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Philippians 4:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6). He discusses the establishing of peace by the reconciling work of Christ in Ephesians 2:11-18 – “”by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross;” and in Hebrews 13:20 we read, “Now may the God of peace who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead that great shepherd of the Sheep, the Lord Jesus Christ equip you with everything for doing his will and may he work in us that which is well-pleasing to him.”

B. “Himself”(23) – If we are sanctified to any degree, it is always and only by the effectual working of God. In this pilgrimage, God does this in the use of the means of instruction, fellowship, admonition to ethical and spiritual living, patience, prayer, and gratitude. In the first moment of Christ’s return, this work will be brought to culmination by a special and immediate operation of God.

C. “sanctify you entirely” -Here and now holiness comes in bits and pieces, gradually, and painstakingly with close attention to the means that are set before us. Then and there, holiness will come in “the twinkling of an eye” when Jesus appears: “Beloved we are God’s children now, and what we shall be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. He that has this hope in him purifies himself even as he himself is pure” (1 John 1:2, 3). The future prospect of perfect holiness in a glorified body like that of Christ spurs us on even now to fit ourselves for that moment of immediate and complete sanctification and glorification.

D. Paul defines “entirely” or “the whole of each of you” (Robertson) in terms of spirit, and soul, and body. This is not teaching a tri-partite division of the human, but is dealing with three specific ways in which the renewing work of God proceeds in the saved person. The body should be treated in purity as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). At the resurrection it will be glorified, free from any propensity to physical corruption and the lusts of the flesh. Spirit, in my understanding, has to do with the renewed affections implanted in the person by the Holy Spirit so that love becomes the fountain of all other virtues. Truly in the work of conversion God renews a right spirit within us. This governance of love as the captain of the affections will be completed in that day. Soul has to do with the mental perceptions, the rationality of a person. Our understanding and rational processes will be freed from all the factors that prejudice them against holiness. No more will false assumptions and unfounded arguments exert influence on our thinking processes; “For now we see in a mirror dimly; but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

E. In this entire sanctification the person will be preserved “complete,” that is, as a whole person. When that entire sanctification comes to the whole person at the resurrection, every part will be blameless. Nothing that exists in that moment can be found that is blemished. The body is glorified, the affections are elevated and purified, and the rationality and judgment are clarified.

F. This is our hope. To this we press forward (Philippians 3:12-14); and for this blessed hope we are trained by the truth, because to that purpose we have been redeemed by Christ (Titus 2:11-14).

G. Verse 24 reaches back to the original call given us in the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:12) that will be brought to completion by the same God who called us “into his own kingdom and glory.” In the same vein of thought, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “He who began the good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God’s faithfulness to us in performing this complete work arises from his faithfulness to his own decree and character. “He remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

V. Parting admonition and prayer

A. Paul was relentless in asking for prayer from the churches. He believed without hesitation or reservation in the absolute sovereignty of God and at the same time saw the prayers of the saints as a vital part of the fabric of God’s accomplishing his decrees (Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 1:19; Colossians 4:2-4; Revelation 5:8).

B. Let the common greeting of friendship be manifest among you without the foolishness and impurity that may accompany it among the pagans. Do this in all holiness and sincerity: “Greet the brethren with a holy kiss.”

C. Remember that in my bringing to you the gospel and in my instruction to you, I was a mouthpiece for the Lord himself. I spoke the truth under the special operation of revelation and found the proper words through the inspiration of the Spirit. So it is with this letter. If you should not discourage prophetic utterance, much less should you ignore this apostolic writing. Its instructions are not optional nor to be laid aside without careful and universal attention to its teachings. “I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren” (27).

D. All depends on grace. Nothing that is preached or written, no amount of instruction will be of use apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. In grace he covenanted to be born of a woman; in grace he lived among men, enduring their ignorance, opposition, enmity, and murderous plots; in grace he died the just for the unjust that he might lead us to God; in grace he rose again; in grace he intercedes; now in grace he abides with us through the comforter. In grace he will return to seal and finalize the great work of redemption and take us to our inheritance in heaven. ”The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (28).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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