Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
Do Not Quench the Spirit (26)
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
A Promise, A Prayer, and a Kiss (27)
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
1 Thessalonians 5:23-28
It is fascinating to observe how Paul ends his letters. Without exception, the apostle’s final words and closing wishes are grace-filled and Gospel-focused. Unlike much of our personal correspondence, when Paul signs off, he seems determined to keep us focused on that which matters most of all. A small sampling would serve us well at this point. Just listen to these words:
Romans 16:25-27. “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
It is unmistakable. In his final words to the Romans, the apostle aims to fix our eyes on God, “the eternal God,” indeed “the only wise God,” and his saving purpose in Jesus Christ. And we understand, as Paul states for us plainly, that bringing about “the obedience of faith” is God’s purpose in the preaching of Jesus Christ. You understand, of course, that this is the apostolic mission. Paul’s aim was never health, wealth, and prosperity. Nor did he preach that all be free from pain and various hardships in this life. On the contrary! “The obedience of faith” is the goal. This is what matters in Gospel ministry. It’s not the only thing. But it’s a main thing, a significant thing, and the last thing he leaves with his readers.
Just one more example:
Ephesians 6:24. “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.”
Could there be a more concise expression of Gospel? I think not! The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of grace. With these final words, the apostle echoes the first words to the Ephesian church, extending his wishes that this gospel grace be with all who love Jesus with an undying love. Grace! Believers need it daily! And oh what grace there is in knowing that though our love for Christ may fade from time to time, it will not die. Indeed, my love for him dwindles as the fires of my heart taper to burning embers. But though they diminish, they will not go out! When God ignites the fires of affection for Christ, nothing can fully and finally quench them! The reason for this may be stated any number of ways. But allow me to express it this way: He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it (cf. Phil.1:16). God does not save us only to abandon us. God is faithful and his word is trustworthy! So, Christian, grace to you this day. Grace be yours in fullest measure!
I submit to you, dear reader, that Paul ends his first letter to the Thessalonians in a similar fashion. His words speak of sweet gospel truth and furnish tremendous comforts and affections in glorious graces and heavenly realities. Let us hear Paul!
A Promise: God Will Himself Sanctify You Completely (vv. 23-24)
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
Among the many statements which can be borne out from these verses, this one certainly needs our attention:
Excellent ministry (faithful gospel ministry) desires that God completely sanctify his people.
If you are a leader in the local church, perhaps an elder or deacon, you must desire that your people be fully sanctified. You elders, you who preach and teach and comfort and admonish and shepherd and live as examples to the flock of those who believe, if this is not high on your list of wishes for those in your care, make it so! Make it your heart’s desire that God sanctify those in your charge and under your careful oversight. This is not an option, but essential to biblical ministry. Of course, we hope the best for our people. We want them to be happy. We want them to enjoy all the good things in life God has for us. We surely do not want our people to be miserable and discouraged. And as pastors, we can offer our comfort in difficult times. However, dear brethren, we must not lose sight of the fact that heaven is our home, and holiness is our calling. Therefore, I say again, if you pastor a local church fellowship, earnestly desire for God to sanctify his people. Pray that he does! But even if you are not responsible for church oversight, make this your prayer. Pray for yourself, your spouse, your children, and your fellow church members. Pray that God sanctify them according to his word!
Allow me to hammer away, at least momentarily. The apostle’s concern, his wish, his aim, his prayer, is that God sanctify his people. I’ve alluded to this already, but let me draw your attention to it once again: Paul is not distracted by the economic realities or physical concerns of his people here. Health, wealth, safety, security and shameful, less than ideal political realities and freedom from pain and persecution do not enter the discussion. Not here. It’s not that Paul was unmoved by such matters. Tough realities of life are not irrelevant, but neither are they ultimate. Paul is simply devoted to eternal realities, things which are beneficial to us not in this life only, but the next one, too (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8).
Consequently, Paul’s eternal perspective shaped and determined the content of his prayers. How much of what we ask God for is driven by a desire to be happy? In our prayers for ourselves, each other, our children, and those whom God has placed in our pastoral care, do we fixate on the needs of the moment? Someone is sick. Another is hungry. Yet another is looking for a job. Do we pray for them? Yes! Without hesitation! However brethren, we must not limit our intercessions and prayers to earthly concerns and needs. Happiness is good. Of all people, Christians have the best reasons to be happy. Just think about it! Though we might be poor, are we not the wealthiest, possessing the “unsearchable riches of Christ?” Though our shirts and pants be worn and tattered, are we not dressed in robes of redeeming white? O my soul, why art thou downcast? Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me! Forget none of his benefits, soul! O Christian, of course we fight with sorrows and discouragements. Sorrows are often as relentless and overwhelming as waves crashing upon the seashore. But may we never forget, dear brethren, O may we never forget the glory that lay ahead for us who love the Lord Christ with an undying love, who have been called according to his purpose! Let Christ and the promise of the New Heavens and New Earth be our treasure and source of happiness!
But we must re-fix our focus on the text at hand. Paul desires that God sanctify the Thessalonian believers. But what exactly is it to sanctify? What is sanctification? Brethren, I tell you in all sincerity that much ink has been spilled discussing and debating the subject. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself. That much has been written about it and then argued over attests to the importance of the matter before us. Indeed, we must set ourselves towards understanding all about this sanctification. Notice several essential truths:
1) The first thing we must know about it is that sanctification is God’s will for the believer. We saw that in chapter four of this epistle. In the third verse, Paul plainly states that our sanctification is “the will of God.” And then he continues, describing sanctification in terms of abstinence from sexual immorality: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” Immediately, I am reminded of Peter’s instruction to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against [our] soul” (1 Pet 2:11). Brothers and sisters, I need not tell you we live in a sexually charged world. And you know that one of God’s greatest gifts to a man and his wife has been deeply profaned and profoundly tainted and terribly twisted and perverted! What God designed for the marriage bed as the most intimate expression of covenant love and union, sinful men warped. Whether in first century Thessalonica or twenty-first century Manilla, or Montreal, it makes no difference. The best of men and women are men and women at best! The depravity of the human race remains! And even the most sanctified of believers are not fully and finally free from the various temptations of sexual lust. We must consider ourselves at war with these “passions of the flesh” as the apostle calls them, for they are at war with us! As one who lived before us said, we must be killing sin or sin will be killing us! “…if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13). So, brethren, let us be killing sin!
2) But what exactly is sanctification? What is it to sanctify? We have yet to answer the question! Rather than use a systematic theology, we shall quote from Paul himself. I have learned this is the superior method. While it is true that systematic theologies are helpful, one must always prefer and default to God’s Word itself. Whenever we can, we must use the language of scripture and allow the bible to define its terms.
So, what is sanctification? In the words of Paul, sanctification, as he thinks of it in First Thessalonians, is “establishing your hearts blameless in holiness” (1 Thess. 3:13). Allow me to repeat that. Sanctification, as the apostle thinks of it in this letter, is establishing the heart in holiness.
What is holiness? Holiness is the opposite of impurity (4:7). To establish our hearts in holiness is to anchor and fix and ground and root them in purity while, at the same time, purging them from sinful desires. It is to make our hearts steadfast and immovable so that we “walk in a manner worthy of God” (2:11) who himself is holy, totally set apart from sin. Establishing one’s heart in holiness is not, in other words, merely becoming a better man. It is not reforming one’s behaviour. It is not striving to conform to a set of high morals. These things are not bad things. But neither are they what God requires, the thing which God himself does and only God can do. It is very important to recognize what we are talking about is an aspect of salvation. Indeed, Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. Christ’s work frees us from sin’s punishment, but it does far more. It purchases our walk in holiness. It guarantees our break with sinful lifestyles and ensures our growth in Christlikeness.
So, what does sanctification look like? When God sanctifies, how can we identify it? Does it consist of obedience to the countless commands of scripture? Is it marked by submission to the various exhortations given in the New Testament? On one hand, the answer is Yes. When God sanctifies one united to Christ by faith, obedience to the commands and instructions of sacred scripture will mark him. For example, look at Paul’s exhortations in this very chapter, verses twelve to twenty-two. Respecting and esteeming those who labour amongst us, who are over us in the Lord and admonish us, being at peace with the fellowship, admonishing the idle, encouraging the weak, being patient with all, repaying evil with good, rejoicing, praying, giving thanks regardless the circumstance: these are markers, these are the fruit, the signs of God’s sanctifying work in us. Without question!
But on the other hand, we must acknowledge that obedience to all that is inked on the divine pages may not mark one being sanctified. The apostle Paul himself, the human author of this epistle, was at one time, very obedient. As a Pharisee, he was the best a man could get! You remember his self-description before Christ revealed himself to him on the Damascus Road. He said he was blameless “as to righteousness under the law” (Phil. 3:6). He was a zealot for the traditions of his fathers, advancing in Judaism far beyond any of his peers (Gal. 1:14). In other words, as a Pharisee, Paul was squeaky clean in terms of morality. He was the best of men, the best of upright, religious men. But could it be said of him that God was at work, sanctifying him “completely?” Absolutely not! “Holiness excludes immorality,” Spurgeon writes, “but morality does not amount to holiness; for morality may be but the cleaning of the outside of the cup and the platter, while the heart may be full of wickedness.” But surely, says one, Paul the Pharisee (Saul) did not have a wicked heart! Yes, as a matter of fact, he did. He admits it himself, telling Timothy he was a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of both the Church and the Lord Christ himself (Acts 9:1,5; 1 Tim. 1:12-13)! And what of his words to the Ephesian believers, how he included himself among those who lived in the passions of sinful flesh, fulfilling “the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3)? Ah! What a radical change conversion produces! The Pharisee was granted Gospel freedom! The blasphemer became a Gospel proclaimer! The persecutor became a Gospel defender! And the insolent opponent became a humble servant of the Lord and his Church.
So, what then? What does the apostle have in mind when he wishes that the God of peace sanctify the Thessalonians completely? What Paul wishes for the Thessalonian believers, he wishes for all believers wherever they might live in the 21st century – whether Montreal, Manilla, Miami, or Madrid. So we press the question. In what does sanctification consist?
Sanctification consists in abounding in love for one another (3:12) and abstaining from sexual immorality (4:3). In fact, the believer is exhorted to abstain from every form of evil, not just sexual evil (5:22). So, we understand by the scriptures that when our hearts are established in holiness, we abound in cross-shaped, Holy Spirit-produced (Gal. 5:22) love for others and we abstain from all evil. Abounding in the one while abstaining in the other: this is God’s will for us. The Thessalonians, and all who follow Christ are called to live life this way. Indeed, when God sanctifies us, we become more and more like Jesus. Establishing our hearts in holiness is nothing short of abounding in Christlikeness; conformity to Christ is the goal (Rom. 8:29)! And how do we know Christ and Christ-like love? We learn of him by reading the bible. It is in the sacred pages of holy scripture where he has been revealed to us.
How is this not the same as the morality of Paul as a Jew, before his conversion when God lavished grace upon him in Christ Jesus? One may respond by citing any number of verses. And of course he would be correct. He would also be right to point out that the heart, or central issue in the matter, is the matter of the heart. Before his Damascus road encounter with the Lord Christ, Paul did not love Jesus or the Church. Paul the Pharisee did not trust Jesus alone for his salvation, but his confidence was in the flesh. He rested in his ancestry, his religion, his obedience to the Law of Moses, and his own efforts to be righteous before God. He had great zeal for God, but knew nothing of a heart consumed and engulfed by the love of Christ!
But there’s a second reason why Paul’s morality – or anyone’s morality – is inadequate. I will state it in simple, but profound, terms. Before conversion to Christ, Paul (Saul) was a God-fearing, religious man. But his morality was Christ-less. He was without Christ. He was not in union with Jesus by faith alone. He was not in Christ. And Christ was not in him. The one reality which makes all the difference between the purely religious (the best of men) and the Christian is this: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). When God turned Paul and Paul was converted, God sent the Spirit of his Son into Paul’s heart (Gal. 4:6). This is true of every soul in union with Christ by faith. No, we are not apostles as Paul was – his apostleship is unrepeatable. But, like the apostle, the Christian believer may say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The resurrection life of Christ “in me” makes all the difference. It’s a radical game-changer!
Why is this so important? Why do I make much of this, explaining it to you? I do so because we must understand that the Christian life is not defined by obedience to commands on a page, written in ink. “Thou shall” and “Thou shall not” are not the essence, fountain, or determiners of sanctification. Faithful Christian living is not even dependent upon the countless commands of the New Testament! Not at all. I submit to you, brethren, that our sanctification depends on not what is written on a page of scripture, but on the Person who dwells in our hearts by grace alone through faith alone, Jesus Christ.
3) This nicely brings us to the third truth I want you to note here. God himself sanctifies his people. God himself sanctifies those whom he draws to Christ in saving faith. This is exactly what the apostle says – “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” This is a sure thing. It is a promise! And it’s a promise founded upon nothing less than the nature of God himself. Our God, the God who spoke the entire universe into existence, is a faithful God. What he says he will do, he does without fail each and every time! If we surveyed the entire bible from cover to cover, we would see the faithfulness of God on full display. We won’t do that now. But there is one text I wish to impress upon your hearts, and that is 1 Corinthians 1:18-20. Just listen:
“As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus, Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.”
Did you hear it? All the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ! God is faithful, and this means God will sanctify us completely in Christ. If you are in Christ, and Christ is in you, you will be fully sanctified “at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” By the character and very nature of God himself, it is bound to happen. God will sanctify his people – he will establish their hearts in holiness – and keep them blameless at the return of Christ.
Now, underline this very thing and do not miss the fact that it is God himself who sanctifies. There is no hint of what some suggest, that the Thessalonians sanctify themselves only as God, by his word and Spirit, enables them to do so. The apostle does not say that God enables believers in their sanctification. Paul does not even write that believers and God work together in the matter. True, believers are indeed active in sanctification. O yes, we are very active in our growth in holiness! But Paul is crystal clear; He wishes for that which God himself does and brings to pass all by himself! How does God do this? It is true that God dwells in the heavens. It is true that God transcends his creation and is totally other. But it is equally true, dear Christian, that God indwells you by the Spirit of his Son! This is not just an objective truth. This is not simply something we must believe. Brethren, this is a reality that can be, indeed must be, experienced. How this can be expressed in words, I do not know. But of this I am certain: When the Spirit of Christ lives in the very soul of a man, it is profoundly consequential. How could it be otherwise? If a bomb explodes anywhere near a soldier, it dramatically alters his life. How then, could a Christian not know the effects of an all-powerful God willing and working his good pleasure in him? How could a Christian not know the very presence of Christ himself within him! Is “Christ who lives in me” merely a powerless proposition, or is it a mighty, impactful, life-giving, sin-killing, love-producing, joy-yielding, holiness-generating provision of the covenant Christ effected at Calvary? O brethren, since we started our Christian walk by the Spirit of God, and since the Spirit sustains us in our faith, let us continue by the Spirit, keeping in step with him (cf. Gal. 3:2,3; 5:25)! We know that the most intimate relationship on earth between a man and woman impacts two lives. A man and his wife are not free to live separate lives. They are bound to each other. The marriage union determines their way of life. But this pales in comparison to the consequences of a Christian’s union with Christ. When Christ actually indwells a man or woman or child, this intimate relationship determines far more than our earthly affairs; it guarantees our pursuit of righteousness. Indeed, as the true shepherd, Jesus our Lord leads us in paths of righteousness!
(4) Now, I want you to see that the apostle wishes for God to finish what he started. Again, the one who reads his bible will discover that God is not a god who leaves things undone. Not at all. What God begins, he finishes. So Paul prays that God “sanctify you completely.” He explains what he means by that in the very next phrase. Paul uses the language “whole spirit and soul and body” to express the entire person. In other words, growth in holiness, abounding in love more and more while abstaining from sin and avoiding every form evil more and more, transforms all that we are.
Upon a moment’s reflection of this, it dawns upon us that Christian spirituality (true spirituality) does not divorce our spirit and soul from our feet and hands. Gospel spirituality embraces the physical. Our bodies matter. Our actions, or inactions, are consequential. So, we must banish from our minds any inclination to think saving faith in Christ and a godless, sinful lifestyle are compatible. They are not compatible. In fact, the sinful lifestyle undermines the profession and testifies to a false profession altogether! So, for example, when a celebrity of any type – perhaps a soccer player, basketball player, or famous actor or musician, or even a politician – says he’s a Christian but leads a sinful, godless life, his profession of faith is false. Holiness and Christian living are inseparable, and God makes it so.
On the other hand, we must not neglect the inner life. Yes, God’s sanctifying work purifies our actions and deeds and lips and tongues. But his work is also a work in which he transforms our souls and spirits. The real battlefield is our minds and hearts, is it not? Indeed it is. Even a quick survey of the scriptures alerts us to this fact. Paul exhorts the Roman believers to be transformed by the renewal of their minds (Rom. 12:2). Jesus himself echoes the Old Covenant law when questioned regarding the greatest commandment. Quoting Deuteronomy 6, Jesus says, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Dear Christian, I repeat: The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. The inner life, our hearts and minds, the very core of our being, must be sanctified. It must be rooted in holiness. Righteousness must reign there, and only God can make it so. We cannot possibly do it. But God can, and does! God sanctifies the minds and wills and affections and desires of all in union with Christ. Sanctification involves the entire person, not just one part of us. Not our thoughts only. Not the affections only. He makes it so that all united to Christ by faith alone hunger and thirst for holiness, for a holy and godly walk.
Before we press on I alert you to one implication. Beware that the church focus too much on evangelism and unbelievers. Yes, evangelize. Yes, proclaim Christ to the world. But the church is for believers. The church must be busy with nurturing believers. After all, faithful gospel ministry desires the sanctification of God’s people!
A Prayer: Pray for Ministers (v. 25)
“Brothers, pray for us.” The apostle is not happy to end his letter without exhorting his readers to pray for him, Silvanus, and Timothy (cf. 1 Thess. 1:1). He has written a great many things to them, expressing his affection for them, urging the Thessalonian believers to abound in holiness, reminding them of how to live to please God, and comforting them concerning those who died in Christ. Surely, as one who founded this local assembly of believers, and as the mature, strong, bold leader, seemingly fearless in the face of opposition and persecution, the need to appear strong might very well be the temptation. Pride does that, you see. Pride tells us, “Don’t let them see you sweat. You must be strong for them. You must be strong because they need you to lean on.” Brothers, forget that stuff. If you think like that, stop it. The truth is they don’t need you to lean on or carry them. They need God to lean on! They need Christ! You cannot carry them anyway! Trust me on it! We must not enable other believers to think more highly of us than is warranted. Yes, we comfort. Yes, we bear each other’s burdens, “and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). But we dare not minister as though we ourselves are God! Rather, let us always be pointing to the Lord Christ, the Great Burden-Bearer and True Shepherd who carries his sheep on his shoulders and holds us firmly in his grip!
Why I say this is simple. In order for Paul, the great apostle – once caught up to the third heaven – in order for him to request prayer for himself and his companions, he had to be humble. He had to be humble. He had to be somewhat transparent and even willing to be seen as weak. Brethren, we must never allow ourselves to operate in ministry from some self-exalted position. Pastors have no inherent authority. A pastor’s authority is a derived authority, given to him to carry out a specific task in a very specific context, preaching and teaching a very specific book. This is a very weighty responsibility of which pastors must give account to the Lord of the Church (Hebrews 13:17).
It comes as no surprise then, to find Paul giving this instruction. We must pray for those God placed over us for our eternal good and present oversight. We must pray for those who have given themselves to the ministry of prayer and word. In Paul’s case, and those with him, we understand how the Thessalonian believers may have prayed. Paul and his colleagues in ministry knew and endured great opposition. As they spent themselves for gospel advance and declared the truth of Christ, they knew the companionship of affliction and trials of various kinds. So, there’s no shortage of material or content to fill our prayers. Faithful ministers today continue to know trials of various kinds. However, we must let the apostle himself tell us something extremely important. Allow Paul to tell us explicitly what he might have us pray. In his second letter to this same church, he commands this:
“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:1-2).
Paul makes it explicit and requests prayer for two specific outcomes. And note the priority. First, he desires prayer for the rapid advance of the truth of God’s word, and second, for protection from evil, unbelieving men. May the prayers of the saints be constant for those given to the ministry of the gospel. And may those prayers be filled with eager petitions unto gospel advance and the safety of those who bring good news to the nations and teach the bible that churches be strengthened in the faith. Pray that God’s word run rapidly to the ends of the earth! Pray that God’s word be received for what it is – the word of God! Pray that it would be honoured and esteemed and respected and revered and counted as authoritative! Pray men be given eyes to see and ears to hear God’s voice as preachers preach the glory of Christ in the cross of Calvary! Pray for the safety of all who voice Christ and his glories!
I’ve quoted him before. Allow me to do so once more. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) was a Baptist pastor in London, England. Often referred to as the Prince of Preachers, his writings (sermon manuscripts, lectures, commentary, and devotionals) continue to bless and edify. On 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Spurgeon, speaking as an overseer of souls to those not pastors, offers the following:
…we are the especial mark of the enmity of men and devils; they watch for our halting, and labour to take us by the heels. Our sacred calling involves us in temptations from which you are exempt, above all it too often draws us away from our personal enjoyment of truth into a ministerial and official consideration of it. We meet with many knotty cases, and our wits are at a non plus; we observe very sad backslidings, and our hearts are wounded; we see millions perishing, and our spirits sink. We wish to profit you by our preaching; we desire to be blest to your children; we long to be useful both to saints and sinners; therefore, dear friends, intercede for us with our God. Miserable men are we if we miss the aid of your prayers, but happy are we if we live in your supplications. You do not look to us but to our Master for spiritual blessings, and yet how many times has He given those blessings through His ministers; ask then, again and again, that we may be the earthen vessels into which the Lord may put the treasure of the gospel. We, the whole company of missionaries, ministers, city missionaries, and students, do in the name of Jesus beseech you…[i]
The scripture is clear. We must pray for those over us in the Lord and all given to the task of declaring Christ. But equally true, brethren, is that those of us so given must be humble. We must ask for the prayers of our people, of Christ’s people. The success of our ministries and the prayers of God’s people are vitally connected. So, let’s be prayerful, and full of prayer as individuals and as churches.
A Kiss: Express Affection for Your Brethren (v. 26)
“Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.”
Depending on one’s culture and custom, the command to greet with a holy kiss might sound strange. Indeed, if you live in the west, explaining the exhortation away will be the strong temptation. “Surely,” says one, “God would not have the 21st century man kiss his Christian brother! Surely, this kiss is culture-bound and not applicable to us!” Perhaps that is the proper view, but perhaps not. However one looks at it, I strongly suggest the important thing is not so much the kiss itself, but what motivates it. Now, I say this for one simple reason. The one who knows his bible will know the details concerning Jesus’ betrayal. Judas betrayed Jesus, how? Was it not with a kiss? Yes, it was (Mark 14:43-45). So, we must not think to simply kiss is to obey the apostle’s instruction (Surely, we ought not greet one another with an evil agenda!). Rather, I do believe the kiss, as is surely obvious, is but an expression of love (cf. 1 Peter 5:14). The holy kiss is thus an expression of affection in a manner fitting for the saints. Of course, it must not be erotic or sexual. But as a sign set apart from the kisses given in the world, the holy kiss is an expression of Christian love and affection – now hear this – that requires physical touch.
And so, here we are, living in a world that both craves touch and fears it! Brethren, do we not wish to be touched? Let’s be honest! We thirst for it. We want to feel loved! But we are also somehow, and for perhaps a thousand personal reasons, afraid of it. For example, is there not a fear of being perceived as a homosexual? If we hug, or somehow touch someone of the same sex, what will others think? What will others assume if they see us express our brotherly, or sisterly, affection for another believer? O how needlessly complicated! How sad! How terribly sad it is to fear that if we embrace a person of the same sex, if we hold hands or throw an arm around another’s waist, we signal a biblically forbidden but now politically correct sexual relationship! This is to say nothing of kissing! If I kissed another man, I would immediately raise suspicions! Actually, I will go further than this and say people would simply conclude I am a homosexual.
This is a sad state of affairs. But it’s the current state of things, the world in which we live. And if we were to broaden our scope a little and speak in more general terms regarding such matters we might sum up our anxieties over touching in these terms: 1) We do not wish to encourage assumptions of sexual perversion, 2) we do not wish to invade personal space, and 3) we do not wish to invite false charges of abuse. So, we avoid all human contact!
However, the church must not be guilty of such avoidance. We must not succumb to our fears. We must not allow the world to shape our church life. Instead, we must be set apart from our godless, politically correct, evil world. Remember that Scripture is to shape us, not culture! So, be mindful of this very fact! Scripture instructs us to touch our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ! Don’t avoid. Physically touch!
What that means is very simple. It means that if we choose not to actually kiss (Don’t misunderstand. I am not endorsing disobedience!), then we at least find appropriate ways to express our affection for our fellow believers physically. I don’t think a handshake is good enough, though if it be warm and affectionate and not firm and bone-crushing it might be very good! Hugs are fantastic. But a quick, warm kiss on the cheek can speak more deeply than a thousand words! Just remember that how ever you express your affection, your love for the brethren, remember to reach out and touch. Whether you hug, shake a hand, put your hand on someone’s shoulder, or kiss another on the cheek or forehead, do so with a heart full of love and in a Christ-like manner. Take what is common to all men – the kiss – and use it for a holy purpose, to say to a brother or sister in your church that you love them and care for them! Is Paul commanding us to greet each other like this always, every time we meet? No, I don’t think so. But I do think he’s instructing us to use expressions of endearment in holy, godly ways when the time I right. Perhaps we miss a brother who’s been absent and we meet him for coffee. Or maybe some providence, frowning or smiling, sad or happy, calls for a tender hug, a loving handshake, or even a lingering fist bump. Whatever the case, let it not be forced. Don’t force it. But do mean it. And let me repeat for clarity’s sake that this is not sexual. There’s nothing sexual here. Regardless of what the world says, touching need not be sexual or the prelude to sex or anything immoral. Paul commands a holy kiss, not an unrighteous smooch!
Closing Words (vv. 27-28)
Now, I must begin to wrap up and bring this to a close. I draw your attention to Paul’s second to last phrase:
“I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.”
The seriousness of the matter is undeniable. To “put under oath before the Lord” is to bind, or to obligate, in the presence of Christ. The apostle therefore obligates the church to read his letter to all in the church. And he does this calling upon the highest authority – the risen Christ who alone is head of the Church.
I wish to quickly draw out two implications of this verse. First, no one is to be excluded from hearing all that Paul has written. His letter is for everyone in the church, not just a select, elite few. Paul’s words are for the pew, not just the pulpit. Paul’s words are for the believer, not just the seminary student. His words are for the illiterate, the blind, the disabled, and not just those who can read, who can see, and who are independent. So, we must do what we can, whatever is in our ability, to ensure that all in the church has access to the words of Scripture.
But of primary and crucial importance is the obvious. This is very simple, but it is deeply profound and cannot be emphasized enough. Let the church devote herself to the public reading of the whole of scripture, the entire sixty-six books of the bible. This is the second implication I wish to draw out. When assembled for corporate worship with hymns and prayers, let there be much reading of scripture. Let the bible have a central place when the saints are gathered for fellowship and encouragement! We must be devoted to the Word! And we must be devoted to the preaching of the Word! Let not your church neglect the public reading and exposition of holy scripture. Guard its rightful place, its central place in the life of your fellowship!
I must tell you of one Sunday in my pastoral experience. The church I was serving at the time held scripture in high esteem. We gave much time to its reading in our weekly worship services. We often read responsively. We had members read individually from the pulpit with regularity. And I, as pastor, would expound a portion of scripture weekly. But on this particular Sunday, I did not preach. Why I did not I fail to recall with any certainty. Perhaps the passage I was preparing was a difficult one and I simply needed more time to prepare. Or perhaps my failing health prevented me from finishing in time. In any event, I did not allow my situation stop me from giving full attention to the public reading of scripture. In the time set aside for preaching that Sunday morning, I simply read the entire thirteen chapters of Hebrews. I commend that to you, fellow pastors. If you’ve been sick, if you’ve been busy with the flock, if for any reason your duties or your providence prevents you from being fully ready for Sunday morning’s preaching duties, read scripture. Read an entire book. Hebrews is a good length. The Gospel of Mark would be a good choice, too. But whatever you do, do not neglect the Word or substitute it with something else. The important thing is that we feed the sheep. They must be fed! Our egos are not the important thing! So, I just encourage you, pastor. Devote yourself to the public reading of scripture. Keep the bible the main thing! To do otherwise and drift away from keeping the bible at the center is to invite much confusion and even apostasy. Time forbids further discussion and illustration. But know this brethren, that whenever the bible remains closed souls are sure to perish. But we are not of those who fail to open the pages of the bible! We will, by God’s grace and for our eternal joy, keep the bible before us!
“The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.”
Brethren, let us never forget that we are never without need of grace. By grace, we were chosen. By grace, we were called. By grace, we believed and were justified. We began our walk with Christ by grace and we continue our walk with him by that same grace. And in these final words, the apostle conveys his prayerful, sincere, and heartfelt wishes that the Thessalonians, and we who “have turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,” be accompanied by grace. Our life with Christ is all of grace. ‘Grace, grace, God’s grace!’ Grace for the forgiveness of our sins. Grace for our growth in Christlikeness, in holiness and maturity until that awesome day when Jesus comes again. That day is our finish line, brethren. So, run! Run, knowing that much grace is available to you and the God of all grace is for you. Continue in your work of faith, labour of love, and steadfast hope. Remember our God works to make you abound in such things. Remember to pray for gospel advance and all who minister. Be sure to express your affection for the brethren with a holy touch. And may grace and peace be yours in fullest measure. Amen.
[i] Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Morning and Evening Daily Readings (Scotland: Christian Focus, 1866; reprint; 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000), entry for July 7.
Pastor Braye studied at Canadian Theological Seminary and the University of Alberta. Presently he labors for “Pastoral Leadership Development at Action International Ministries” In the past he served as pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church and Beckwith Baptist Church. He is From Edmonton, Alberta