The Spirit-Led Church in its Labor of Love: Final Instructions (2)

“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”

1 Thess. 5.12-22

One thing about the church is that the church is people. When God takes a sinner and converts him to Christ, God does not intend for him to flutter here and there and, in essence, be a lone ranger Christian. What God intends for him is attachment to a local, visible church. That’s how those who love Christ are expected to carry out their days. That is the norm of Scripture. In the book of Acts, chapter 2, for example, the pattern is made clear for us. Peter had preached this great sermon about Christ. There was a great moving of the Spirit of God. And men were cut to the heart. They became full of anxiety. There was this great pain that fell on them, as if a knife had been thrust into their chests. Hearts were cut. And they knew they were in a damnable place. Out of their pain they cried. That’s what we do when we know ourselves to be done for. We don’t just lie there and do nothing. We plead and beg for rescue, for a way out, for the pain to go away. To their question ‘What shall we do?’ the apostle was clear. He commanded them to repent – i.e. stop sinning and start trusting Christ. And he also commanded them to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. And when all was said and done those who received the word preached were in fact baptized. Verse 41: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Added to what? Well, to the number in the upper room, to the 120. And so the church was born, and they immediately went their separate ways and worked things out on their own, right? Wrong! I love the very next verse. What is a church? What is she to be doing? Verse 42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (note that apostolic doctrine takes pride of place here), and to the fellowship (i.e. one centered in and around Christ), to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Verse 44: “And all who believed were together…!” What were they doing together? Verse 42! They were devoted to the apostles teaching first up. That is, they were busy engaging themselves with the glorious truths of Christ. They attached themselves to, and were persevering in, the doctrine(s) of the New Covenant. They tethered themselves to this fellowship, to breaking bread with this fellowship, and to praying with this fellowship. There’s nothing ‘loosey-goosey’ here. This is real attachment. These 3000 souls were glued to each other. That’s what being devoted means.

MacArthur: “There was a time when coming to Christ meant coming to His church. As far back as the New Testament, salvation brought you into union with the visible, gathered Body of Christ. Becoming a Christian meant entering into fellowship with the people of God.”

In the NT, converts living unattached from the church is unheard of. Believers joined together. There was no ‘just me and Jesus’ thinking like today, as if one could grow in Christ apart from His body, the church, the visible church, a local church. So, the obvious hits us in the face: Where there are people, there are relationships. The church is no different, of course. But the church is different, of course. The church is not a family. But it is a family. What am I saying? I’m saying that because the very nature and purpose of the church is spiritual, and not temporal, that the church belongs to Christ and Christ is in charge, life within the church body will be, and must be different than anywhere else. It is to this end that Paul provides us with these final instructions in chapter five. Last time we dealt with verses 12 and 13. Paul there tells the church to respect its leaders, those over them in the Lord, those Paul specifies as ‘who labor among you.’ He tells them they are to esteem them highly in love, not because of their looks, or even charisma or lack thereof, but because of their work. He summarily defines this work in terms of admonishment. That’s what elders and pastors and overseers and shepherds do. They are over others for a Christ-ordained, saving and sanctifying purpose. They warn and correct and instruct and rebuke.
So, the next instruction comes as no surprise to us. “Be at peace among yourselves.” It’s not hard to imagine what might happen when the eldership does its job. When he, or they, corrects and warns and acts and teaches with authority, peace is all too often not the response. Far too often offense is taken, heals are dug in, backs go up, sympathy is sought, and there is anything but peace. This cannot be. It must not be. The Spirit-led church is not this. The Spirit-led church is a church marked by peace, not discord. Discord is of the flesh. So, I tell you: be at peace. Be peaceable. If you live by the Spirit, walk by the Spirit and be at peace. You must know that your response to Biblical admonishment is to be a peaceful one. You must not react in ways, in selfish ways, ways that will only cause needless strife among us. That profits nobody. Not even the one, or ones, admonished. But peace is to mark the entire membership.
We all are to live peaceably with each other. The NT is clear on this: Romans 12: 18. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 14:17. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And verse 19: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” 1 Corinthians 14:33. “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” Hebrews 12:14. “Strive for peace with everyone…” And verse 15: “See to it that…no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Bitterness is a poisonous root. It blossoms into a cancer that spreads and then kills peace. Is there any animosity amongst us? Any angry hearts? This cannot be. How insane is it for the arm to be angry with the hand! Or the brain be bitter towards the heart! How suicidal is it for one member of the body to stab another! “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32). That is the Biblical way. That is what the apostles teach. And this is that to which we are to be devoted. Attached. Persevere in. It will make for peace. So, we must be at peace with each other. Pray it be so. It’s God’s will.
The next instruction is to admonish the idle. Mark it: This is for the entire membership, not just the eldership. Verse 14: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle.” This is for every regenerate church member. Admonishing is everyone’s responsibility. This launches my thoughts immediately to Hebrews 3:12 & 13. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day … that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” To admonish and to exhort is a group activity. And you need to know: this is how we are to care for one another. This is how we love each other! If we love each other we will correct each other when we think unbiblically. We will correct each other when we behave unbiblically. We will warn each other about the consequences of our actions, our sinful actions, or even our simply unwise actions, if we choose them. This is the church at work. This is a real church. This is what a Spirit-led church does. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…”
Paul instructs elsewhere. But here, Paul says, “Admonish the idle.” Who are the idle? The word for idle has been translated a number of ways, including unruly, disorderly, undisciplined, lazy, and irresponsible. The word actually describes one who is out of line and even insubordinate. Paul may very well have the lazy and loafers in view here, since work and independence is a theme in these epistles. He already instructed them to mind their own affairs and work with their hands and be dependent on no one. So, he then instructs the church to correct the lazy to get off the couch and get a job. Be idle no more! But there’s no reason to limit the focus to employment here. This is but one example of how those in the church, but out of line with Paul, were to be corrected and admonished. So, don’t balk at the person who cares enough for you to correct you and warn you. Be at peace. Be peaceable. And remember: faithful church members do this.
How they do this should be, and will be if Spirit-led, in keeping with Galatians 6:1. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Admonish in a spirit of gentleness. And who are the spiritual? The spiritual are those keeping in step with the Spirit of Christ who indwells them. And get this: they are by means of the Spirit, self-controlled. To admonish without self-control is a very, very dangerous thing to do. But admonish we must. The apostle calls us to it. And if we love each other, we will be compelled to it. We won’t be able to help ourselves. It is bound to happen! And it must happen, why? Because sin deceives. Sin is a liar. Sin distorts everything. And if sin remains unchecked in your life, you’re a goner! You’re a goner and the church will die. The doors might be open. Bodies might be in the chairs. But the lights will have been out for who knows how long.

Spurgeon: “It is that which thou art most loath to hear that thou hast most need to hear; instead of being angry with him who points it out to thee, thou shouldst be willing to pay him for doing it.”

That’s it. That’s sweet. A true brother tells you what you don’t want to hear, and even to his own hurt. Why? Because he has the bigger picture in mind. He’s looking out for not just who you are, but who you will become. And what is it that those in the church are to be? Why do we join a church? People join for all kinds of less than biblical reasons. But listen to the apostle’s agenda for the church, which is my agenda, and I pray yours as well: “…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone [that’s admonishment] and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1. 28-29). What Paul worked for in the Colossian church, we should work for in our church, namely maturity in Christ. And what is that? We don’t have to guess. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4. Maturity is there defined as “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ!” Are we there yet? Has anyone in this room reached ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ?’ But that’s to be our goal. That’s what we are to aim for. So, be at peace. Admonish. And third…
“Encourage the fainthearted.” Encourage the fainthearted, or the discouraged. Now, listen, lest you misunderstand. There’s a context here. Paul is writing to a church in a very specific circumstance. This church was very vocal about their faith. Their neighbors knew they loved Christ. They stuck out like sore thumbs. They were misfits because of their conversion. Their neighbors and friends and families despised them and mocked them. But it was much worse than that. This church suffered physical harm because of their faithfulness. There’s even more than a hint that some of them were killed. So, what do you think might happen to you if you were in that church? It would be more than a wee bit discouraging, right? We might even be tempted to give up, to keep our mouths shut and blend in with our neighbors and co-workers. After all, we have lives to live, bills to pay, mouths to feed, and the rest of it.
Do not miss the context here. If you do, you miss Paul. And you end up thinking Dr. Phil could’ve easily given this exhortation. When Paul says, ‘Encourage the fainthearted,’ he means persuade the faint of heart to keep on keeping on despite the hatred of unbelievers. This isn’t a plea for some emotion-laden, self-esteem building, feel better about life ministry, in other words. The encouragement given is to be in keeping with the exhortation and encouragement Paul himself gave them earlier; that they “walk in a manner worthy of God” (2:12). And lest we forget; he just finished telling them about the dead in Christ, that they will rise first. Be at peace. Admonish. Encourage. And….
“Help the weak.” Who are they? Who are the weak? Weak in what sense? The weak in faith? Maybe. The weak in conscience? Perhaps. The sick? The morally weak? Those easily given to temptation and discouragement? The less ‘obvious’ in the church? The more I studied this and reflected upon it the more convinced I became that none of those answers are the right answers. This is why: Paul had made it very plain to them, by his own example, that work is good. He, and those with him, worked very hard, night and day, he writes, that they not be a burden to any of them (2:9). He also instructs them to work with their own hands, so that they walk properly before unbelievers, not dependent on them. In his second epistle to this church, third chapter, he writes the following:

“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

All this to ask a further question: What if the weak were those not able to work, or the poor amongst them? And what if Paul himself confirmed this interpretation elsewere? He does. And he does it in Acts 20. Listen to just a portion of his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders:

“…be alert, remembering I did not cease to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of our Lord Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”

Be at peace. Admonish. Encourage. Help. And finally. for today..
“Be patient with them all,” with those needing correction and to be set straight. Be patient with the faint of heart and the weak. Paul is telling us to bear with these ones. He’s telling us to wait without complaint, to forbear. But wait for what? Don’t misunderstand. This is an active waiting, full of admonition, full of encouragement, full of helping, full of peacemaking. But we wait. We wait for God to do what we cannot do, namely sanctify the unruly and strengthen the faint of heart. And we wait with them until Jesus comes again. I’m not saying push church discipline or even excommunication aside. That’s not what Paul advocates here. What he presses here is a forbearance with certain persons in the church. What he longs to see is the Spirit of Christ manifest. For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience…What is love? Love is patient.
When you think of the church, and your place in it, do you think in these terms? Do you think that serving the church Biblically, means what Paul tells us here? What he lays out for us is actually the work of faith in the church. This is a labor of love. That’s what he spells out for us. And did you also notice? Church life isn’t passive. It isn’t to be a spectator sport. It’s not a game. It’s not a TV show. Church life is actually a body at work, its members, each of its members, doing its part. It’s what Paul speaks of in Ephesians 4, that “he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
This is my hope for SGBC. Let us be a church where each part works as it should, where peace reigns, correction is given and received, the battle worn are buoyed up, the poor are helped, patience is abundant, and all because its people are Spirit-led people, engaged in a labor of love.
Pastor Todd Braye
Todd is the pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Blacke, Alberta, Canada. After graduating from the Canadian Theological Seminary (B. Mus., M.Div), he served a Baptist church in eastern Ontario for six years before coming home to Alberta. He has been SGBC’s pastor since October 1, 2005.