How can you tell a true believer from a spurious believer? Is it by the information that a person knows? Is it by church attendance? Is it by your personal religious experience? I don’t think any of these things are true barometers of a person’s faith. In truth, only God can tell the difference.
However, in Matthew 25 Jesus tells about the separating of the Sheep and Goats (the true believers from the false believers). We are told that He is able to tell the true believers from the false believers by how they treated the hurting people around them.
As Paul concludes his letter to the Thessalonians he seems to have a similar theme. He seems to advise that instead of bickering about the dates and times of the Second Coming of Jesus, we would be much better served to live for Christ in light of that coming. Paul concludes his letter with a list of rapid-fire instructions on how to make faith personal, and how to make it interpersonal.
12 Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15)
Respect Your Leaders
The first command from Paul is that we respect those who have authority over us. To be honest, I am always resistant to the when I hear Pastor’s say, “You need to ‘submit to my authority’”. Frankly, such words sound more like those of a cult leader than a true servant of God.
Consequently, when I first read these words I was uncomfortable. It sounded like I was going to have to tell people that they should honor me. It seemed a little too self-serving. However, as I read the passage more carefully. I noticed several things.
We Need to Think Beyond the Pastor. At this stage in the life of the Christian community, the structure of the church was not as developed as it would be later. I’m sure Paul appointed leaders in the church. However, Paul doesn’t tell us to respect and honor a certain POSITION; he tells us to honor certain kinds of people. These are people who are people who influence our spiritual growth.
What is the Shepherds job? Paul describes the role of this person of spiritual influence. Paul says these people are characterized by,
- Diligent Labor. The Greek word means to exhibit great effort and exertion to the point of sweat or exhaustion. These are people we respect because they have earned our respect by their hard work.
- They are in a position of influence. This could be a Sunday School teacher, a Church leader, a Youth group leader or a person who we look up to because of their spiritual example.
- They are fellow Christians.
- They tell the truth. These people admonish others. They instruct us in the faith and they turn us away from error.
Do you see that this description goes well beyond a person who holds a particular office in a church? It’s not about titles, it is about character and influence. The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote,
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
We must always examine the outcome of a person’s life. It is character that influences; not position.
How Should we respond to the person of Spiritual Influence? Paul says a faithful leader should be respected, held in high regard and loved. In other words, we should not make the job of the leader any more difficult than it already is. It sounds to me like Paul is making a plea for us to value our spiritual leaders as much or more than we value those who lead us financially, academically, athletically, and musically.
We all need to find people who will help us grow in our Christian faith. If you don’t have anyone like that in your life; you need to find someone. When you do; learn everything you can from them. Encourage them in their work. Value their contribution to your life. Listen to what they are saying. Follow their lead.
Live At Peace
The second thing Paul tells us is to “live in peace with each other”. It is hard to tell whether this is still part of the previous discussion about spiritual leaders or whether it is a new thought. If it is still part of the discussion on respecting spiritual leaders, it might indicate that there was a power struggle going on in the church. In this case, Paul was pleading for the people to stop fighting each other and start working.
If this is a new section, Paul is giving us a familiar principle: we should be peacemakers rather than troublemakers.
Don’t take this passage out of its context. Some will take this injunction and say that Paul is telling us to be more “tolerant” in the sense of the contemporary societies view of tolerance. We are told that we should let everyone do their own thing and we should “accept” differences as expressions of different approaches to the issues of life. The mantra is simple, “What’s true for you, may not be true for me.”
That is not what Paul is teaching! In the verses that follow Paul teaches us to hold each other accountable for living the life set down for us by the Lord. What matters is not what you think is true or what I think is true. What matters is what IS true, as defined by the Lord. The peace Paul sought for the church does not come from being indifferent to the sin around us. It is a peace that comes from believers working together to honor and serve the Lord.
Help Each Other
Paul is specific in how we are to help each other.
And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.
Warn the Idle The term translated idle is probably better translated “unruly”. It is a term that indicates a person who behaved in a disorderly or insubordinate manner. It would be like a soldier going AWOL. When we see someone going astray, we have a responsibility to warn that person that they are in danger.
Suppose you were behind a car driven by your friend on the road. As you travel late at night you notice your friend’s car beginning to drift on the road. You suspect you friend is dozing off. What do you do? Do you simply pull off to the side and get out of the way because you don’t want to interfere? No, you would do all you could to warn that person of the danger. You would cry out to God, beep your horn, and maybe try to call your friend on his/her cell phone. You would do whatever you could to keep them from a dangerous situation.
When we see people who are drifting from the faith, Paul wants us to recognize that those people are actually drifting into the path of the wrath and judgment of God. We have the responsibility to warn those people! We must choose our words carefully and we must be motivated by love, but we need to be bold and honest. The world’s form of tolerance is not love; it is indifference! Paul is calling us to care about each other enough to keep each other from danger.
Encourage the Timid. Second, Paul says we should encourage the timid. The word translated timid means, “faint-hearted”, or “discouraged”. This is the only time the word is used in the New Testament. The idea seems to be that we are to encourage those who want to quit and give up. Perhaps we could even say that we need to encourage those who are “burned out”.
Truth be told, most of us hit periods in life where we want to quit. We become weary of living faithfully; worn down by those who resist the truth of the gospel; and at times we feel like we aren’t accomplishing anything. A timid person is one who is faced with a great task and doesn’t feel they have the resources or the strength to meet that task. Many Pastors have walked away from ministry because they believed they weren’t doing any good. Teachers have quit teaching, singers have stopped singing and people have drifted from the church because they were tired and felt their “fire” had gone out.
At these times what is needed most is for someone to come along to encourage. What teacher would not be energized by a note from a former student thanking them for what they had learned in their class? What servant in the church would not have the embers of their spiritual passion stirred by knowing that someone benefited from their efforts or appreciated their leadership? We help each other to “carry on” when we take the time to encourage each other.
Help the Weak. The third thing Paul directs is for us to “help the weak”. One commentator writes,
The word to “uphold” the weak paints a beautiful picture. It comes from a word meaning “to hold before or against.” It is the picture of a person keeping oneself face to face with someone, holding on to them. Instead of rejecting or belittling the weak, the Christian fellowship should be the place where a “buddy system” can be developed for them. When first learning to swim at a summer camp, you are often assigned a “buddy” who is a strong swimmer. Could not our small groups and church fellowship operate on the “buddy system”? Some folks have a hard time staying afloat on the treacherous waters of life. With a “buddy,” they just might make it!
There are many in the church that need a “buddy” who will help them. There are those who have
- Suffered a divorce and they feel like a second class Christian
- Been in jail making them feel no one will ever trust them again.
- Been diagnosed with an illness that causes people to pull away
- Advanced in years and they believe they serve no useful purpose
- Lost their job and they feel like a loser
- Are suddenly alone due to a death and they don’t know how they will cope
In each of these cases the human tendency is to withdraw from these people because we don’t know what to say. Paul wants us to understand that these are times when people need someone to help them . . . they need a buddy.
Be patient with them all. Paul gives us a great general principle for every situation: “Be patient with everyone.” In some respects this may be the most difficult command of them all. We are becoming increasingly impatient as a society. We don’t want to wait for anything. We want to give people solutions. We want to solve problems. We want people to shape up RIGHT NOW! Sometimes, people just need someone to listen.
You see it all the time with people who are grieving. They don’t need answers; they need someone to understand that they are hurting. They have lost something that no words can replace. They need time to heal.
We all need people in our lives
- Who will listen to us rather than try to fix us
- Who will weep with us rather than tell us to “move on”
- Who will keep trying to instruct us rather than getting frustrated because we don’t get it
- Who will pray for us and with us even when we don’t seem to be making progress
- Who will endure our “bad days” rather than getting offended and walking away.
Patience is the key that unlocks the door to the deepest relationships. You can’t have any significant relationship unless you are willing to be patient.
Don’t Use Worldly Tactics One more thing: “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” We live in a world that believes the best way to handle someone who is a little antagonistic is to be a little more antagonistic. We have a tendency to try to get our way by intimidation, force, and making demands. We tend to think that anger is an effective tool for motivating people. It’s not.
The world tends to take advantage of the weak and ridicule the different. It views every encounter as a contest where either you win, or I win. The world asks a simple question about every relationship: “What’s in it for me?”
This was not the way of Jesus. He often met the hostile crowds with silence. He had compassion on the weak. He defended the helpless. He saw potential in those the world ignored. He wasn’t concerned about his notoriety; He sought to bring others to the throne of God. His first goal was not to “protect himself” it was to give himself in faithful service to the Lord.
I love the story of Nicky Cruz. It’s a story that was been immortalized thirty plus years ago in the movie, “The Cross and the Switchblade.” Cruz was a gang leader who didn’t like the preacher, David Wilkerson, who was trying to tell him about the love of Christ. At one point Cruz said to the preacher, “I ought to cut you to pieces.” Wilkerson responded, “And if you do, every piece will cry out that Jesus loves you, Nicky.”
That is the kind of attitude that changes people. When we return love for hate; when we respond to abuse with grace; when we see past the scars and bruises of a life and discern the image of God in a person . . . then we are doing God’s work. Then we are living out the life of Christ.
Think about it. Don’t you want to be a part of a church where people value their leaders and care about each other? Don’t you long for people who will care about you enough to turn you from wrong and to encourage you when you are burnt out or stand with you when life knocks the legs out from under you?
Let’s pursue this as our goal. Take this text personally.
1. Identify those who influence you spiritually. Give thanks to God for these people. Encourage them. Cherish them. Thank God for them.
2. Dare to get involved in the life of the friend who seems to be headed in the wrong direction. Do what you can to awaken them (even if it risks your friendship) instead of you simply waiting for them to crash and burn?
3. Make it a point to send someone a note of encouragement this week. Look for someone who may feel forgotten. Be specific in how that person has influenced you. Determine to be an EN-courager rather than a DIS-courager.
4. Be attentive this week to those who need someone to be their buddy. Bring some donuts. Put on a pot of coffee. Take some time to listen and to care.
5. Watch the way you relate to the people in your life who frustrate and aggravate you? Determine not to be impatient. Resist the hostility and aggressiveness of the world and instead practice the patience, the love and the kindness of Jesus. Work hard to see that difficult person through the eyes of Jesus. Dare to see beyond what that person IS . . . and work to see what that person can become through the grace of God.
What we believe about Jesus is important and essential. However, the final test of whether or not we believe is not our test scores on some written exam; the true test will be the heart of Christ that is evident in our dealings with each other.