Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Encourage one another …"

Day #211:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - July 27th

Scripture Reading:  I Thessalonians 4 - 5 …

It seems we often forget the context in which the New Testament was written, and in doing so we miss the intensity and urgency of the message that we read in the letters to the churches … we may even forget that these were letters inspired by the Spirit of God and written down on paper to encourage those who were living life and facing persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ, both from the religious leaders around them and the government who oppressed them.  These early believers needed God, they needed each other and they needed encouragement to persevere … so do we!!

While we could spend time comparing our circumstances to theirs, the truth is that each one of us will face difficult times at some point in our lives, and some will endure more and suffer more, whether physically, mentally, emotionally or in a combination of these.  Remembering that "suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:4) is necessary if we are to live a life pleasing to God, and that is what Paul is now urging the Thessalonians to do:  "We instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.  Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more" (4:1).

WHAT you believe is important, and how you live out what you believe is also important.  Too many people are content to say they believe in Jesus and then go on living life for themselves.  Paul explains again, "It is God's will that you should be sanctified!" (4:3).  To be "sanctified" means "to be set apart as holy" … it means to live a holy life according to the standard of God's own holiness as revealed in His Word.  "For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life" (4:7).  While we are saved by grace and declared holy in God's sight (justified) through faith in Christ, the result of the Holy Spirit living within us is the constant pursuit of holiness.  Paul emphasizes this truth by saying, "He who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you His Holy Spirit" (4:8).

"Brotherly love" is a vital element in the holiness believers are called to pursue.  God has said from the beginning that those who believe in Him must love Him AND our "neighbors."  Throughout the New Testament God calls believers to "love one another," and even to love their enemies.  When people genuinely love one another others notice and that is the model the Church is called to display to the world around us.  John goes so far in his first letter to the churches to say, "Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen" (I John 4:20).  Genuine, heartfelt love for our brothers and sisters in Christ is essential to living a life that is pleasing to God.

As we live in this world, then, in what has been called "the weakness of the flesh," we all need encouragement to live by the power of the Spirit who is at work within us.  And there is no greater encouragement than the knowledge of what lies ahead:  the return of Jesus and our future with Him.  These early believers may have thought that Jesus would return in their lifetime, but now some had died.  Would they miss the coming of God's kingdom?  Paul assures them that such is not the case.  He tells them not to "grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (4:13).  Why?  Because "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" (4:14).  Not all will be saved, but those who are in Christ, who have been united to Him by true faith, will not miss what God has promised.

The following verses describe the rapture of believers, the same event mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 24:30-31 and other places.  There is much debate about the timing of the rapture - when it will occur, but note what Paul says here:  "About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  While people are saying, 'Peace and safety,' destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape" (5:1-3).  Many have read these verses and determined that the rapture will be a secret event as people simply disappear.  After all, Jesus said we would not know the day or the hour of His return, so we can't know when it will happen.  But wait, there's more!

"But YOU, brothers, are NOT in darkness so that this day should surprise YOU like a thief!" (5:4).  There is not time here to go into all the signs that Scripture gives us that will point to Jesus' return, but we need to understand that the true believers who are alive on the earth for the rapture will be eagerly anticipating that moment when the voice of the archangel thunders and the trumpet call is sounded!  We do not know the day or the hour, but we WILL know the time.  Noah didn't know the day or the hour, but he needed to build the ark and when it was completed and the animals were on board, he knew it wouldn't be long.  The events of the world around us point to the soon return of Jesus, but there are still some events that must take place, according to the Scriptures.  It's almost time … but not yet.  Difficult times lie ahead for the true Church, as they did for the believers then.  So how do we live?

"Let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled" (5:6).  Most people today are spiritually "asleep," spiritually DEAD!  They think nothing of God, they do not know Jesus as Savior and Lord, and they live to please themselves rather than living to please God.  Paul writes, "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" (5:8).  We who believe in Jesus Christ KNOW that this life is not all there is … that in fact, we have an eternity with Jesus in a new heavens and a new earth to look forward to, to anticipate.   You can see why Paul writes, "Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing!" (5:11).

And we don't want to skip verse 9:  "For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ."  This verse has once again been taken by many to mean that we will avoid the time of great distress, what some have labeled "the Great Tribulation."  Believing that this time of tribulation and distress is the wrath of God, many wrongly believe that the rapture could take place at any time, followed by seven years of God's wrath.  However, the time of God's wrath is called throughout Scripture, "the day of the Lord."  This period of wrath does, indeed, follow the rapture, but the time of tribulation and distress that Jesus talks about in Matthew 24:21-22, and that Paul teaches about in II Thessalonians 2:1-12, precedes the rapture of the Church.

This means that the last generation of believers will endure extreme suffering and persecution and must be ready for that to happen.  Those who gleefully anticipate an easy road to heaven will fall away, for their hope is in the wrong thing and NOT in Christ.  Jesus says to the churches in Revelation 2-3, "to him who overcomes …" God is calling His true Church today to be awake, to be alert, to be self-controlled, to labor for His kingdom, to put HIM first … knowing that whether we die before He comes or are alive at His return, we shall meet Him in the air and be with Him FOREVER!!!

So God says, "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (5:16-18).  As much as you are doing that today, do it more!  And "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.  The one who calls you is faithful and He will do it!" (5:23-24).

"Encourage each other with these words!"  (4:18).

"Heavenly Father, Your Word speaks truth that our hearts long to embrace, for in Your Word is hope beyond the scope of this world.  The hope You offer is eternal and by Your grace I rest assured that I will live in Your perfect presence forever in a perfect new world of Your making.  I rejoice in Jesus Christ and ask You to fill me constantly with Your Spirit that I may live a life pleasing to You in all things and be an example to others as we await the day of Jesus' return.  In Jesus' name, Amen"

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