I Know God’s Will for You

The title of this post is true, you know. I know God’s will for you, sure as the shoes on my feet.

This isn’t a predictable message. It doesn’t involve your career, your home, or your spouse. It’s not about the next big decision in your life. (At least, not specifically.)

Are you jittery with suspense? Here’s the truth.

God’s will for you is your sanctification.

God’s Role in Your Sanctification

My revelation for you comes from God’s word. Specifically, Paul writes this to the Thessalonians: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3).

“Sanctification” sounds like a fancy theological word, but it’s easy enough to understand. It refers to our growth as Christians, the development of greater trust in the Lord, deeper love for God and our neighbors, fuller obedience, more thorough repentance. Sanctification is the process—sometimes a painful one—by which we resemble Jesus more and more.

It would be terrifying if sanctification were left entirely to us. But God is involved through and through, as Paul writes in his letter.

We should focus on pleasing God. Though we please God by observing his law, Paul directs our focus specifically to God. This is far more motivating than merely holding up a set of rules to obey.

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thess 4:1)

Sanctification is a sign of knowing God. In this passage, Paul writes pointedly about sexual immorality, and he draws a contrast between Christians and Gentiles. He wants the Thessalonians to behave with “holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess 4:4–5). Knowing God should be the beginning of all ethical decisions and behavior.

The Lord is an avenger. Sanctification involves loving our neighbors, including our brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul warns his friends that they must not “transgress” or “wrong” their brother, “because the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thess 4:6). As we must remember that God is our father, we must not forget that he is also the judge.

God has called us for purity. When we sin, we go against the very purposes of God for us. “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thess 4:7). Purity and obedience are not easy, but it is comforting to know that we swim with the current of God’s will for us when we abstain from immorality.

God gives us his Holy Spirit. Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who ignore his exhortations are in danger for their souls. “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess 4:8). The command for holiness comes from God, not from man. But God gives himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, to teach, strengthen, guide, and encourage us in this same holiness.

Abstain from Sexual Immorality

The specific issue Paul had in mind for the Thessalonians’ sanctification was sexual immorality. From what I understand, in many Greek cities in the first century, sexual immorality was rampant. Men rarely limited their sexual relationships to only their wife. It was vital that this church take a clear stand before their watching neighbors on this matter.

Through Paul, God’s command is to “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess 4:3). This is not an area that calls for moderation; these Christians are not to wean themselves from this behavior like a man who wants to quit smoking. All sexually immoral behavior needs to be put aside, now.

This is not just an ancient message, of course. We need Christian sexual ethics just as much as the first century church. Because we are loved by God, adopted by him at the highest possible cost, we must live in a way that pleases him.

Excel Still More

Paul has a brilliant, loving way of bringing this command to his friends. He encourages them to keep doing what they’re doing, only more.

The Thessalonians know the instruction Paul gave them, how to walk with and please God, and they are doing it (1 Thess 4:1). Paul pleads with them to “do so more and more” (1 Thess 4:2).

Find more ways to love and obey. Do it more often, in more areas of your life, regarding more and more people. Search out more ways to repent. Don’t be content with a plateau.

This is good for us to hear. It is far too easy to fall into patterns that are at cross purposes for our Christian obedience.

Be encouraged, dear saints. When you hear that God’s will for you is your sanctification, you may be disappointed, because for too long “obedience” has come to make us think of a boring, humorless, locked-down life.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. What God commands is not only good for us, it’s best for us. And there is deep, lasting joy in aligning ourselves with God’s will and purpose for us.

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What Do We Want for Our Friends?

It is a sad fact of life that friends move away. How do you pray for such a friend? What do you want for them?

Perhaps you pray for their health, their family, or their church. You surely pray for specific requests they share.

And while these petitions are wonderful, the apostle Paul would like to add to our list.

Paul and the Thessalonians

Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians as an evangelist and pastor. But the warm nature of the letter shows that he also wrote to these people as friends.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:13, I notice at least five things Paul earnestly wanted for his friends.

Paul wanted to see them face-to-face

Paul was driven out of Thessalonica after a short period of ministry (Acts 17:1–10). He described it as being “torn away” from them, so great was his pain (1 Thess 2:17).

Though I’m sure Paul was grateful to send written communication, he longed to be with his friends in person. (See 1 Thess 2:17–18, 3:6, 3:10, and 3:11.) In fact, this is one of the dominant themes of the letter: Paul loved the Thessalonians, missed them, and wanted to see them!

The same is true for us. We can thank God for modern technology that lets us keep in touch with our distant friends while still longing and planning to see them in the flesh.

Paul wanted to strengthen and encourage them

Paul couldn’t stand the separation from the Thessalonians (1 Thess 3:1) so he sent Timothy to visit. Paul was willing to give up the help and fellowship of his dear friend so he could send a personal word to this church.

Timothy was sent, in part, to “strengthen and encourage” them in their faith (1 Thess 3:2, NASB). The Thessalonians were disheartened because they heard of Paul’s suffering (1 Thess 3:3–4). Paul wanted them to know this was an expected part of following Jesus (1 Thess 3:3).

Paul was not just acting as an apostle. This is a vital role friends play in each other’s lives. We remind each other of what is true, because we easily forget. We need our friends to point us back to God, to rehearse the good news of the gospel for us, to recall the hope we have for the future because of Jesus.

Paul wanted to hear about their faith

Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica for at least two purposes. In addition to encouraging this church, Paul wanted Timothy to bring back a report about their faith (1 Thess 3:5).

Paul was concerned that the disturbance the Thessalonians felt regarding Paul’s afflictions might tempt them to turn from the faith (1 Thess 3:5). This was no idle curiosity for Paul—he loved his friends so much that their standing with God was vital to him.

But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you—for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. (1 Thess 3:6–8)

How often do we pray this simple prayer for our friends? Lord, strengthen them to stand firm.

Paul wanted to minister to them

As Paul thanked God for the joy the Thessalonians gave him, he prayed “most earnestly” that he could see them face to face. One reason he wanted to see them was so he could “supply what [was] lacking in [their] faith” (1 Thess 3:10).

Because of the way Paul had to leave Thessalonica (Acts 17:10), he likely had not finished the initial training and instruction he had planned for these young disciples. While we are not apostles, we do have important roles to play in ministering to each other within the body of Christ. God often calls us to be bearers of grace to one another.

Paul wanted them to be ready to meet Jesus

Paul ended this section of his letter with a benediction.

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess 3:11–13)

Paul has Jesus’s return in view throughout this letter. Here he holds up Jesus as the judge. He wants them to be blameless, and he knows that abounding in love is the way to get there.

Praying for Our Friends

This is a convicting passage for me. I don’t always have my friends’ growth and love in mind as I pray. I’m not often looking for opportunities to encourage and minister to them.

As I see my failings as a friend, I am reminded of Jesus, the Friend of sinners. He encourages, strengthens, and ministers to his people. Even better, he wants to be with us forever, and his sacrifice secures our hope.

As those who are friends of Jesus, by his grace, let’s learn to be better friends to each other. Then we can say, with Paul, that we really live if our friends are standing firm in the Lord.

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When Ministry is Like Parenting

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians might be the most tender epistle in the New Testament. In every chapter—in nearly every paragraph—Paul’s love is evident, rising like carbonation bubbles and popping on the surface.

Though Paul’s face-to-face time with the Thessalonians was brief (see Acts 17:1–10), they built a deep, warm bond. So it’s no surprise when Paul describes his time with them in familial terms.

Like a Mother

In the beginning of 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul defends himself against accusations of bad behavior. He did not preach out of “error, impurity, or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thess 2:3). He and his companions were not interested in pleasing men, like many other traveling teachers; they were only interested in pleasing God “who tests our hearts” (1 Thess 2:4). Finally, Paul was not interested in glory from men (1 Thess 2:6). He would not use his office as an apostle to make demands on the people (food, shelter, or money).

In contrast, Paul compares his missionary party to a nursing mother.

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess 2:7–8)

These two verses paint such a warm picture of the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonians! Take note of the affectionate words: gentle, nursing, taking care, affectionately desirous, share ourselves, very dear.

Not all ministry situations will look this way. Paul and his companions were willing to share their lives with the Thessalonians because they “had become very dear” to them. The affection came first, then the sharing of life.

A ministry that has this gentle, affectionate flavor is compelling. Though not all Christians are called to traveling, evangelistic ministries, we are all called to love our neighbors. And Paul’s description raises some important questions.

Would our neighbors describe us as gentle? Are we cultivating affection for our neighbors? Are we willing to share our lives along with sharing the gospel?

Like a Father

Further on in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul continues to defend his behavior in Thessalonica. He and his companions “worked night and day” so that they “might not be a burden” to the people (1 Thess 2:9). The Thessalonians were witnesses of their “holy and righteous and blameless” conduct (1 Thess 2:10).

Paul longed for the Thessalonians to walk closely with the Lord.

For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess 2:11–12)

Each one of those verbs in verse 11 is important. Paul and his co-laborers exhorted, meaning they explained the expectations in detail from the word of God. They also encouraged, meaning they gave the Thessalonians courage, they cheered them on. Finally, they charged, meaning they emphasized the people’s responsibility to fulfill their duties.

To appreciate the beauty and power of Paul’s comparison to a father, imagine a good, kind father teaching his son to ride a bike. After a period of instruction, the father jogs beside the bike, helping the boy to balance. When he sees his son catching on, he is lavish with his encouragement, telling the boy how proud he is. The training time goes on and the father reminds his son of the timing and actions needed for success. Before too long, the boy is able to ride on his own.

It is possible—all too common, in fact—for Christians to act more like an overbearing boss or a scolding nanny than an encouraging father. We pedal along, scoffing at those who can’t yet ride on their own. Or we laugh when we see a brother take a fall, and we eagerly gossip about his mistakes and injuries.

Madness Without the Gospel

Paul describes a close, vulnerable kind of ministry, and this model of love is madness without the gospel.

After all, when we get as near to others as family members, they will see our scars. They will learn our secrets and our sins. And this will give our enemies ammunition. Why would we choose this path?

The gospel is the answer. Paul was eager to share his life with the Thessalonians because his life was no longer his own. He would share his life along with the gospel, the good news that the Son of God not only shared his life but gave his life for his people.

Paul could encourage the Thessalonians to walk worthy of the Lord because this same Lord called them “into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12). The kingdom and glory that await—that are ours purely by grace—far surpass any damage that might come from people knowing the real us. In fact, we highlight the glory of that king and his kingdom by reminding others that we are welcome because of his goodness and power, not our obedience or worth.

Risk and Love

Don’t leave this passage in awe of Paul, thinking you could never follow in his steps. Leave this passage in awe of the Lord and how he works through his people.

We can love because we are loved. We can reveal ourselves because Jesus revealed himself. We can confess our weakness, because with Jesus that humility is strength.

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Turn to Serve and Wait: Our Christian Calling

The late author and theologian John Stott introduced me to the wonderful phrase, “holy gossip.” In contrast to gossip that wounds people and splits churches, holy gossip happens when news spreads about the work God is doing.

In the apostle Paul’s ministry, he heard holy gossip about the Thessalonians, and he wrote about it in his first letter to that church. In the process, he gave a memorable description of the fundamental calling of the Christian life.

Early Christian Growth

Paul began his first letter to the Thessalonians by thanking God for his work within these people. When the letter was written, the church was only a few months old, and Paul had seen and heard convincing evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit among them.

Paul described how the Thessalonians began their Christian lives. They first received the word of the Lord with joy, though with much tribulation (1 Thess 1:6). In this way the people became imitators of Paul, his companions, and the Lord (1 Thess 1:6). Believers in nearby areas pointed to this church as an example (1 Thess 1:7).

Though the church was young, God was using them mightily. The word of the Lord “sounded forth” from them, and news of their conversion and faith was the holy gossip of the day (1 Thess 1:8).

Verbs for the Christian Life

Here is what Paul heard regarding the Thessalonians.

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)

Paul’s verbs in these verses give us a compelling summary of a Christian’s calling.

Turn

First, the Thessalonians turned to God from idols. Conversion always involves a turning around, whether from a life of violence and addiction or disinterested religious observance.

The word “idols” may evoke images of carved, wooden figures, but we’re better off thinking of an idol as anything we worship instead of God. Comfort, success, relationships, health—these can all be idols.

A turn to God from idols might not be immediate, but it is decisive. Once we realize the water glass at our lips is full of sand, we can’t help but run to the fountain of living water.

And though this decisive turn happens at the beginning of our Christian lives, the implications reverberate through our remaining years. Walking faithfully with God means developing a habit of turning to him from idols.

Serve

The Thessalonians didn’t just change their religious allegiance. They turned from idols to serve the living and true God.

Conversion is not merely a shift in our religious thought life; it is coming alive from the dead. And the clearest evidence of our new life is our service to our new king.

The order here is crucial. Our service to this “living and true God” does not gain us his love. We are not loved because we serve; we serve because we are loved. When we wake from the dead and see how we have been bought with a great price, we cannot help but love and serve our God and Father (1 Cor 6:20). Of course, this service to God also involves loving our neighbors (Matt 22:34–40).

Wait

The most surprising verb in Paul’s list might be the last one. The Thessalonians turned to God from idols to serve and to wait. This is a hard command for impatient people.

Faith in God always has a forward-looking element. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we have great hope for the future. We long for our true home, our true family, our true king, and the glorious end of the curse. And since the future is not the present, we must wait.

This is not a thumb-twiddling, foot-tapping, bored-and-yawning sort of waiting. We’re waiting for a person—the Son of God! Paul describes this Son in verse 10.

First, he is in heaven. He is on the throne, in power, having ascended to his rightful place. Also, he has been raised from the dead. He was crucified and shut behind a stone. But death could not triumph over Jesus.

Finally, Jesus is the one who delivers us from the wrath to come. Wrath is coming, and we all deserve it. But Jesus will rescue those who are his from this terrifying end. We wait for the one who experienced wrath in our place.

Look to Jesus

This summary of our Christian calling might sound like an impossible task list. And if we separate this summary from the gospel of Jesus, that’s exactly what it is. But God never intended that separation.

We will fail to turn, serve, and wait perfectly. But Jesus has turned, served, and waited in our place!

Jesus never worshiped an idol (1 Pet 2:21–25). He turned away from idols toward God without fail.

Service was the foundation of Jesus’s life (Mark 10:45). He served the living and true God through obedience, love, and sacrifice.

Finally, Jesus waited. While on earth, he longed to return to his father (John 17:11, Luke 9:51), and he waited three days for his resurrection. He looked toward the future with hope like no one ever has.

As we look to Jesus, let’s help each other to identify and turn from our idols, to serve God and our neighbors, and to wait for his Son from heaven. Living this way will generate more holy gossip than we could imagine.

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Rejoice Always

Recently at youth group we read 1 Thessalonians 5:16, one of the shortest verses in the Bible. It says, simply, “Rejoice always.” Thinking about it after, though, it struck me how it’s linked with the next verses. Here are the following verses, and notice that “Rejoice always” is part of a sentence: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Joy in All Things

Paul commands us to rejoice always and we should recognize that joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness comes and goes and is dependent on our circumstances at any given moment. Joy, on the other hand, is a state of mind, rooted deep within us in the knowledge that whatever may come, God is in control and that it’s all for our good and for His glory.

But that doesn’t mean joy always comes easily. Even now, I know people—some close to me—who are struggling with medical issues, financial challenges, and life changes that are difficult. These are people who, in a way, would have every right to be miserable or angry with their circumstances. But Paul says to have joy always. How can any of us rejoice all the time?

Prayer is the Key

The apostle gives us the answer: “pray without ceasing.” If prayer is simply having a conversation with God, then praying constantly shouldn’t be a difficult proposition. It doesn’t mean we have to walk around 24 hours a day with our heads bowed and our eyes closed (though there is certainly a time and place for that), but it does mean that we should allow ample time talking to the One who knows us best.

Part of prayer is recognizing who God is and what He has done for us. Think of the titles we use and what they mean in relation to God’s character. We call Him “God,” “Lord,” “Creator,” “Father,” “Savior,” “Spirit.” God sent His Son, who died and rose, that justice might be satisfied and our sins forgiven. Prayer is a great reminder of these things.

Thanksgiving All Year

Which brings us to the last clause of the sentence: “give thanks in all circumstances.” As we spend time in prayer, contemplating who God is and what He has done, it reorients us. It causes us to take our focus off of our problems and, instead, focuses us on the One who is in control of our problems. And that change in focus leads to thankfulness. It also brings us full circle. As we think about and give thanks for what the Lord has done, it causes our joy to deepen. And that makes it easier to “rejoice always.”

Paul’s command in this sentence is not an impossible one. Paul likely knew that life’s problems cause us to focus on ourselves. It’s easy to worry when things don’t seem to be going our way. But an attentiveness to prayer—and the awareness that brings as we’re reminded of the God who loves us no matter what we go through—changes our worry to joy. Then we will have what we need to follow the command to “Rejoice always.”

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