In 1st Thessalonians 5:6, Paul writes, “Let us be alert and self-controlled.”
I always used to read those words only as a warning, but now I am beginning to see them as both a warning and an invitation.
Warning: A few years ago my car was totaled when I was rear-ended by a pickup truck. I was waiting to turn left at an intersection, with my attention focused only on the oncoming traffic, waiting for space to make my turn. I did not keep an eye on my rearview mirror and the danger that was approaching me from behind. Since that accident I have been much more alert to the dangers that may come at me from any direction. That’s a part of what Paul has in mind. Every day we face the dangers of temptation from every conceivable direction. We need to be alert at all times, watching out for these dangers.
More and more, though, I am recognizing that I especially need to be alert to the weaknesses within my soul even more so than to the dangers from without. Yes, temptations come at me from various directions, but I am discovering that the greatest dangers come from the weaknesses of my own soul. When I feel insecure, I am more susceptible to temptation. When I am worn out I am more susceptible. When I feel hurt or lonely I am more likely to give in to sin. When I am anxious I am more likely to stumble. When I am not aware of my own sinful tendencies I am in greater danger of being ensnared by them. I find that I easily slip back into unhealthy default tendencies. I find that I get caught in ruts that aren’t good. I find that I often act out of blindness over what is good or what is best. I am finding that I especially need to be alert to the weaknesses in my soul.
Invitation: I am also beginning to discover that the call to be alert is an invitation as well as a warning. Temptations are not the only things that come at us from various directions; God continually fills our days with opportunities.
If we are alert—if we pay attention to what is going on around us—we will find opportunities to be an instrument of Christ’s love, to extend His goodness, to stand up for what is right, to grow spiritually from the various things that come into our lives, to offer hope or comfort or encouragement to another, to tell someone the good news about Jesus Christ. If we are alert, we will find many opportunities to “shine like stars in the universe” (as Paul says in Philippians 2:15).
Moreover, if we are alert, we might find many opportunities to enjoy God’s presence in our lives throughout the day. God is much closer to us than we generally realize, and He is far more interested in enriching our lives than we can comprehend. If we are alert, we may become aware of His presence, and we may taste of His love and goodness, and we may take in more deeply the peace and joy and hope God intends for His beloved children.
So, as Paul advises, let us be alert and self-controlled.
The very concept of the “end of life” is a challenge to our sense of “hopefulness.” The “end of life” implies the failing or cessation of certain things in our lives. It implies an inability to get around as well as we used to, and a failure to see or hear as well as we used to. It implies that our heart and lungs and other vital organs won’t work like they used to. It implies death, the cessation of life as we’ve known it. For many people, the “end of life” provokes a feeling of great hopelessness. But, following a passage in which he discusses the “end of life” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17), Paul says to the Thessalonians, “Therefore encourage each other with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
That ought to make us ask: What words does Paul share in these verses with which we can “encourage each other” in the face of the “end of life”?
One of the encouraging things Paul shares is found in verse 16: “For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven with a loud command.”
What is so encouraging about that?
Here are a couple of thoughts:
In his commentary on Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Leon Morris points out that the word translated in the New International Version as “a loud command” was used elsewhere in ancient Greek writing as “the cry made by the ship’s master to his rowers, or by a military officer to his soldiers, or by a hunter to his hounds, or by a charioteer to his horses…. In most places…it denotes a loud, authoritative cry, often uttered in the thick of great excitement.” In other words, a great command is given here.
But what is the command?
Gregory L. Fisher shares a story from his experience as a teacher at a West African Bible College. One day one of his students asked, “Reverend, 1 Thessalonians 4:16 says that Christ will descend from heaven with a loud command. I would like to know what that command will be.”
Fisher recalls, “I wanted to leave the question unanswered, to tell him that we must not go past what Scripture has revealed, but my mind wandered to an encounter I had earlier in the day with a refugee from the Liberian civil war. The man, a high school principal, told me how he was apprehended by a two-man death squad. After several hours of terror, as the men described how they would torture and kill him, he narrowly escaped. After hiding in the bush for two days, he was able to find his family and escape to a neighboring country. The escape cost him dearly: two of his children lost their lives. The stark cruelty unleashed on an unsuspecting, undeserving population had touched me deeply. I also saw flashbacks of the beggars that I pass each morning on my way to the office. Every day I see how poverty destroys dignity, robs men of the best of what it means to be human, and sometimes substitutes the worst of what it means to be an animal. I am haunted by the vacant eyes of people who have lost all hope…. ‘“Enough,”’ I said. ‘He will shout “Enough” when he returns.’
“A look of surprise opened the face of the student. ‘What do you mean, “Enough?”’
“‘Enough suffering. Enough starvation. Enough terror. Enough death. Enough indignity. Enough lives trapped in hopelessness. Enough sickness and disease. Enough time. Enough!’”
Our hope is that at the end of our lives, or when Christ returns (whichever happens for us first), Christ will call us to Himself with a command—a command that promises that the pains and trials of this world will have come to an end, a command that lets us know that the full joy and love of heaven are about to begin and will never end!
These are words with which we can encourage one another: We can look forward to love-filled and joy-filled life in heaven with Jesus forever!
One of the most important and most frequently repeated commands in Scripture is the command to us to love one another.
When Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He answered with two vitally important commandments: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Following His final meal with His disciples, Jesus said to them, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). A bit later in the evening He repeated it: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Then He repeated it again: “This is My command: Love each other.”
In John’s first letter, he writes, “And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us” (1 John 3:23). Later he adds, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).
Paul concludes 1 Corinthians 13 by stressing, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Scripture commands us to love one another…but it doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. I don’t know about you, but I know that for me the command to “love one another” continues to be a life-long struggle.
I am all too familiar with my own fears, resentments, grudges, stubbornness, misconceptions, prejudices, and selfish attitudes that get in the way of loving others as God calls me to do. Over and over again, I find myself confessing to God my need for His help in this regard. I find myself asking Him to help me to see others with His eyes, to feel for others with His compassion, and to love others with His heart, for my own eyes are not clear enough, and my compassion is not deep enough, and my heart is not true enough.
Someone once wrote, “Coping with difficult people is always a problem, especially if the difficult person happens to be yourself!” Since the most difficult person I generally have to deal with turns out to be myself, I have to keep turning to God and asking Him to help me deal rightly with this difficult person so that I can then love others.
As God helps me to get that straightened out, I turn next to the advice of Billy Graham: “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.” I ask God to help me to leave the judging and the convicting up to Him, and to help me to do the job that is mine: loving the person who is before me.
Then I try to apply the counsel of Ruth Haley Barton who writes, “In every decision we make we could hope that somewhere along the way someone will ask, ‘What does love call us to?’” In my dealings with others I try to take that question to heart: “What does love call me to in this situation?”
I hope you will join me in this life-long struggle to try to heed God’s command to us to love one another.
The Apostle Paul writes something in 1 Thessalonians 4:9 that I find intriguing: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.”
That gets me wondering: In what ways were they taught by God to love each other?
As I thought about that question a bit of prose by Dorothy Law Nolte came to mind:
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
That got me wondering a bit further: If Dorothy Law Nolte is correct in these observations, what might the Thessalonians have learned from God? What might we learn from God?
If people experience the love of the Savior who left the riches of heaven to share with us the struggles of earth, we learn to come alongside one another even when others face difficult times.
If people experience the compassion of the Savior who touched the leper, protected a woman caught in adultery, and invited a tax-collector to share a meal with him, we learn to let our hearts feel with others their loneliness and shame and rejection.
If people discover that Jesus had no prejudice against anyone but reached out graciously to all, we learn to set aside our own prejudices in reaching out to one another.
If people experience the forgiveness of our Savior, we learn to forgive one another.
If people discover that our Savior gave His very life for us, we learn to sacrifice our safety and comforts to care for others.
If people receive the Holy Spirit from the God who chooses to put some of Himself in us, we learn that we are immensely valuable in the heart of God, and we learn to see the incredible value in others.
Perhaps these are some of the ways the Thessalonians learned from God to love each other. I hope these are some of the ways we can learn from God to love each other.