What is the first thing you want to know when you hear about a new diet or exercise program? Not what the daily regimen looks like. Not what the daily caloric goals are or what macronutrient goals you should be hitting. The first thing you want to know is does it.... work? And so you look at the before and after photos, you listen to testimonials, and if a friend or acquaintance told you about it you ask them about their personal experience and how effective this has been in their life.
This is instructive for the process of sharing the Gospel. When we share the Gospel with people the first thing they want to know is does it work? How effective is it? What changes will it produce for the better? Why do I need this? We must start with why and often times that “why” starts not with some deep dive in doctrinal discussions, or some esoteric theological conversation but with what God has begun to do in me (there is a time and place for those other conversations, but the beginning is usually not it). Paul says, “the Gospel is the power to salvation” (Rom. 1:16), do we present it as such? The power to deliver someone from the domain of Satan and bring them into the kingdom of light. The power causes the blind to see. The power to raise from death to life. People, especially those who we know and already have a relationship with, want to know how has that power been at work in us.
As we studied Sunday morning when looking at the story of the man liberated from Legion, Jesus brings about powerful and demonstrable change. This man was brought from the land of the dead to that of the living, from lunacy to soundness of mind, from destructive raging to serene sitting. Likewise, if we are going to demonstrate the power of the Gospel, that power must evident in our lives. Like the formerly demon-possessed man, we must “sit at Jesus feet” that is we must learn from him and become his disciple. We must “change our clothes” that is - put on new habits and a new lifestyle. Finally, we must “tell our story” or proclaim all God has done for us. We all have been plagued by certain evil forces in our lives, perhaps not in the same way as this man, but we have been or are in the process of being liberated no less. Let us proclaim what God has done in us.
For this, we need 1) an honest introspection of our past. 2) A grateful appreciation of where God has brought us at present. 3) And a hopeful appreciation about what heights He will lead us to in the future.
What are you “demons?” Did you/do you struggle with greed, pride, discontent, lust, envy, rivalry, gossip, slander, anger, depression, anxiety, homosexual tendencies, promiscuity, drunkenness, or any such thing? Are you, by God’s strength, doing better with these things? Has He made you more loving, less prideful, more pure, less profane? More peaceable, more pleasant? How have you grown? People want to know that, nay, people need to know that.
Find a way, even in the present situation, to share your story. Go to your front yard and get to know your neighbor and talk about how your life is being transformed by Christ. Call up an old friend, or a family member that knew you in a former life, catch up, let them know what’s changed and why. Feeling brave enough to be really vulnerable. Share your story on social media. You never know who might relate, who might feel that they’re the only ones struggling with those demons. Who might hear (read) your story, and think “I’ve got to tell them mine.”
In all of this, our focus should be on God not on self. This is what He has done! These changes are only possible because of Him. Let us not attribute the power in our lives to our intellect, skill, or circumstances apart from God. This is not an exercise of bragging in self, but of boasting in God! Let us tell our story, or perhaps better put, His story in us!
God created us in His image and after His likeness.
What does that mean? Nowhere are we given an explicit definition of what it means to be made in the image of God.
The language “create man in our image and in our likeness” suggests that we share some affinity with God, that is we resemble God in some way. Because we lack an explicit definition of this, either in Genesis 1 or elsewhere, students of the Bible are left to infer what this might mean from the implications of the text. The inferences that have been drawn over the years range from the idea that we bear some physical resemblance to God, to the idea that we were created perfectly righteous, to the idea that we are embodied spirit beings, to the idea that we are rational beings and the list goes on. Several of these things are true (though the claim that we resemble God physically is dubious) and it's unlikely that the implication of being made in the image of God can be exhausted by any one of these things by itself. In Genesis 1 we see God as the Divine creator with capacities for intelligence, creativity, and relationship who creates good things in order to bring a blessing to His creation.
The word image suggests that not only do we resemble God but that we are made to represent God. That is what an image was, a representation. For example, Nebuchadnezzar had an image created to represent his power and glory (Dan. 3). Likewise, idols are often referred to as images (see for example 2 Chron. 23:17; Amos 5:26). It is not that ancient pagans were so primitive that they thought the pieces of wood and stone were actually gods, but that they represented the gods and they were a place where they could pray, worship, and confer with the gods. How pagans that of their idols, Israel thought of their tabernacle/temple and ark of the covenant. It was the place where God is represented. Part of the reason why God did not want Israel to make images of Him is that He had already made an image to represent Him. Us! Think about that, we are the “place” where God is represented. We bear His name and were created for His glory (Isa. 43:7). It is no surprise then that the New Testament applies temple imagery to Christians both individually and collectively. We are redeemed and restored to be the “place” where God is represented and glorified.
Perhaps the most concrete implication we can draw from the context of Genesis 1 about being made in the image of God is that we were endowed with authority. We are made to rule with the Divine Creator. We have been given dominion and stewardship over this earth and having an affinity with God, and being agents/representatives of Him, we ought to use our authority for His glory (see also Psa. 8). Like God, we exercise our capacities and capabilities of intelligence, creativity, etc. to continue to care for, cultivate, and capitalize on the resources that He’s given us to be a blessing to others. For Adam and Eve, their task was gardening (Gen. 2:15). In our vocations, we are to employ our faculties and capabilities to do good, but this idea extends far beyond the workplace. We are created as God’s workmanship, created for good works and this applies to all of life (Eph. 2:10). We each have different capabilities and capacities, but we are all created in or as God’s image. It is our divinely appointed task to glorify God and bless others. Because of this, it is difficult to prescribe specific tasks to each individual. However, some questions might help each of us figure out how we can uniquely image God.
What are my skills and abilities that I can employ to be a blessing to others?
How has my training, background, experience, etc. equipped me to make a difference in someone else’s life?
What knowledge has God blessed me with that I can pass on to others?
What resources has God given me that I can utilize and share to His glory?
First, let me say that it was so good to see each of you worshiping yesterday. We had so many people tuned in to our various live streams singing, praying, and thinking together with one another. The form may have changed, but God was still praised, we were mutually edified and encouraged, and the truth of the gospel was proclaimed. I was encouraged by all who made it a priority to tune in and be part of what we were doing. I was especially encouraged by our Bible class last night. We had great attendance and participation. Let us continue to consider how to stir one another up to love and good works. Especially during this time in which we are absent in body, let us all the more draw near in spirit.
Applying Sunday’s Sermon:
That serves as a good segue into what we discussed Sunday morning. Paul, though torn away in person, was present in spirit as he endeavored eagerly to be able to come to the Thessalonians again so that he could supply what was lacking in their faith (1 Thess. 2:17; 3:10). In lieu of being able to be there with them, Paul did the next best thing he knew to do, send a letter. A letter in the ancient world was the way to communicate one’s presence and passion even when separated by long distances. In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he reminds them of his deep love for them and encourages them to continue to follow his example. He writes primarily to encourage them to build on their foundation of faith, hope, and love and to continue to excel still more in the arenas of holiness and love. Paul describes this as a cooperative effort, God is working to cause the abound in love and holiness (1 Thess. 3:10-13; 5:23) even as the Thessalonians press on toward the same goal (1 Thess. 4:1-3; 10). I want us to consider how this goal might be achieved, particularly in reference to excelling in holiness. This, of course, does not happen haphazardly. Holiness takes work. I think about the song we sometimes sing, Take Time to Be Holy. The title itself suggests that holiness is a pursuit for which preparation and persistence are important.
Paul is convinced that God will sanctify so thoroughly that every part of our being will be made holy in the end (1 Thess. 5:23). That in mind, let us think what this process looks like on several levels of our being - the head, the heart, and the hands.
Head - this has to do with our perspective. How we think influences how we live. Here are four ideas for us to bring perspective into focus:
- Live in light of the day of the Lord because it is coming. It seems that part of Paul’s strategy for holiness is to remind them that there will be a day when the Lord comes back and judges his enemies (1 Thess. 1:10, 2:19; 4:6; 5:1-3). Knowing that judgment is coming should cause us to think twice when it comes to our holiness. The positive side of this, of course, is that we who are prepared will obtain salvation on that day (1 Thess. 5:4-10). This also should shape our thinking and thus our actions.
- Live like God is in the room with you because He is. We are to be holy in the present because a holy God is present with us. This is what Paul says in 1 Thess. 4:7-8. How different would our decisions be if we ran them through this filter first?
- Live like it effects more than just you because it does. In the context, Paul is talking specifically about how failing in the arena of sexual purity affects one's brothers and sisters (1 Thess. 4:2-6). But we ought to see this application in other arenas as well. None of us live in a vacuum, our actions have an effect on others, even when we think they are private and personal. My commitment to holiness, or lack thereof, will have a great effect on my spouse, my children, my friends, and my brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us dwell on that in every decision that we make, every step we take.
- Live like Satan is waiting because he is! Paul was deeply aware that there was someone powerful out there who could not wait to derail the Thessalonian's commitment to holiness (1 Thess. 3:5). The moment we lose sight of this fact is the moment that Satan will pounce.
Heart - Closely related to the head, this has to do with our motivations and inclinations. This is our ‘why’. Without this, we have no reason for anything.
- Our primary motivation for living holy is that we want to please God more than anything else (1 Thess. 4:1). This motivation is grounded in grace toward us. God destined us for salvation by giving His son to die for us, therefore in all that we do we live for Him (1 Thess. 5:9-10). Let us constantly reflect on God’s graciousness and reorient our hearts to desire to please Him more than anything else.
Hands - this has to do with our actions. These are the tangible steps we take. Here are four from 1 Thessalonians:
- Because Paul recognizes that God plays an essential role in our continued sanctification, he prays to that end on behalf of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 3:11-13). Is our own personal holiness a regular part of our supplications to God? Do we ask Him to help us with our weaknesses, struggles, temptations, etc. each day? Whatever mountains stand between us and holiness, let us pray to our God and Father that He helps us up them.
- God’s word is powerful and active. It had the power to separate light from dark in the beginning and it has that same power to do that in me. Paul recognized that one of the ways that God works to bring us to holiness, is through His life-transforming word (1 Thess. 2:13; cf. 1:8-9). What attention am I giving to the word of God? Is it something I am reading and digesting each day? Do I have a daily bible reading plan or some way of coming in contact with its power? Looking for a new way to interact with the word? Check out this “new audio Bible app that keeps Scripture in your ears and on your heart”. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, they have graciously given our congregation free access to it for the next 58 days (Shout out to Joe for letting me know about it). Follow this link to sign up https://dwellapp.io/signup/with/CM9UKn
- Remarkably, Paul describes Timothy as God’s coworker in the gospel in order to establish and exhort the Thessalonians in their faith (1 Thess. 3:2). Part of how God brings us to holiness is by putting others in our lives to sharpen and strengthen, to encourage and exhort. Indeed Paul urges all of the brethren to engage in this work of pushing (sometimes pulling!!!) each other toward holiness (1 Thess. 5:14). Let us develop deep relationships with one another, let us share our struggles, let us lean on our brethren who have faced the same battles for holiness that we are now facing, and let us follow their direction. It does us no good to put on a face and act as if we have it all together when we don’t. God in His wisdom established the church family so that we might excel still more together! Find a trusted friend, a spiritual mentor, someone you trust and look up to. Confide in them. Lean on them. Learn from them. Grow together.
- Paul says to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Part of the reason we fail in being holy as God is holy is that we like to flirt with evil. We, like young Simba in the Elephant's graveyard, laugh in the face of danger only for the hyenas to gather round about us soon afterward (Lion King reference). Then we wonder why or how we got there. Let us stop giving the devil ground, making provisions for the flesh, and making holiness an afterthought and thus an impossibility.
Sunday morning we continued our kingdom parables series by looking at the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. It is a parable that challenges our hierarchies and motivations.
In the context, Jesus had just told his disciples that the kingdom belongs to “little children” (Matt. 19:13-14). These are those of lowly position who depend entirely on what they’ve been given. This sets up the contrast with the rich young ruler who is a man of great status in wealth. By all accounts he is a righteous man who presumably had been blessed by God but he had not become like the little children. He was still clingy to power and possessions (Matt. 19:16-22).
The disciples on the other hand had given up everything! They sacrificed relationships, opportunities to grasp at position and possessions for the sake of serving Christ. They had lowered themselves and become “last” in this world and therefore God would make them first (Matt. 19:23-30).
And yet Peter’s question, “what then shall we have?” betrays an improper motivation and a proclivity to elevate oneself to a higher position through the back door so to speak. This is demonstrated by the parable Jesus tells of laborers who had great expectations of great reward only to begrudgingly complain when those expectations went unmet. These expectations were fueled by the workers observation of their master generously rewarding those who had by comparison down very little work. They thought to themselves, ‘if they got rewarded graciously, how much more will our reward be? After all, we have labored longer and harder than they have. We are better workers than them. We deserve more than them.’
The disciples needed to understand that they would probably sacrifice more than others would, have a harder journey than others would, have to leave behind more than others would and yet this is still not grounds for making themselves first. They were in danger of boasting in their lowliness, having pride in their humiliation and feeling like they had earned something from God. Jesus reiterates, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” We must become like little children, entirely dependent on the Father shirking all notions of status. Oh how we all need this lesson today.
The laborers that the master rebukes had a begrudging perspective, literally an evil eye. They saw their service not as a response to a benevolent master but simply as a way to get something. This led to ingratitude and rivalry. Like the toddler who throws their Christmas gift to the side when they see their sibling open up their present, they forgot the good that they had been given. This is the way comparison works. Comparison is the vat where ingratitude festers and where rivalry is fermented. When the evil workers looked outward at their coworkers they did so with a downward gaze. We must change our perspective.
We begin by looking upward. God has rewarded us bountiful, far beyond what we deserve. Read and consider the lavish blessings in Eph. 1:3-14. We deserve none of it yet the God who is above us loved us enough to bless us far beyond what we deserve. We must start by looking upward in gratitude.
Next we look inward. The workers had a high estimation of themselves because of comparison. The problem with comparison is that it rarely leaves room for honest introspection. We must ask ourselves the hard questions and realize that we aren’t the greatest thing since sliced bread, we haven’t earned anything, God doesn’t owe us anything.
Only once we have adjusted our gaze by looking first upward in gratitude and then inward introspection are we prepared to look outward toward our fellow workers. Now we see the work that they HAVE done, the sacrifices they HAVE made, the steps they HAVE taken and the ways in which God has accepted and begun to bless them. Our jealousy turns to joy, because God has been gracious toward them also.