Many ministers of my vintage (coming up on 38 years since ordination) have a few texts to which they have returned time and again. In my case, two of those are Acts 2:42 and 1 Thessalonians 5:14.
In late summer of 1969, just after Susan and I were married and just before we went off to seminary, I heard Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preach on Acts 2:42 at the Pensacola Theological Institute. The sermon made a strong impression on me. Several years later, when I was pastor at Union, Miss., I was asked to preach for the installation of a seminary friend at Forest. I chose Acts 2:42 as my text, and since then have preached or given devotionals from that text many times. As John Calvin says, here we have ‘a picture of the church.’
My seminary preaching professor used to talk about times when a preacher is ‘casting about for a text.’ He was talking about times when a preacher is not doing a series of sermons and is looking in the Scriptures for a text next to preach. Again, going back to my first PCA pastorate in Union, one of the texts I found as I once was ‘casting about’ was 1 Thessalonians 5:14. It was a sermon that, at least to me, worked well enough that I have found myself returning to it many times through the years.
Here’s the Church
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
Here is the church just after Pentecost. The Spirit has come to the church; Peter has preached his great sermon; three thousand people have been added to the church. The church is vital and healthy.
The people are ‘devoted’ – the word expresses both intensity and constancy – to four things.
The apostles’ teaching. The ‘teaching’ refers to both the act of teaching and its content. The apostles fulfilled their calling to lay the foundation of the church of the New Testament era by proclaiming the life and works of Jesus and explaining the significance of all that Jesus said and did. What they taught is both the foundation and the standard of truth. The people devoted themselves to the apostolic teaching, faithfully attending the teaching occasions and believing and practicing the truth they were taught.
The fellowship. The apostolic teaching created the fellowship. The church is a fellowship of truth. The deepest and primary reality of fellowship was experienced in worship as the community heard and received the apostles’ teaching. This fellowship, created by truth and experienced in worship, expressed itself in daily, practical, and caring involvement in each others’ lives, as they shared meals in one another’s homes and provided for those among them who had needs.
The breaking of bread. This is not the breaking of bread in ordinary meals but the breaking of bread to which Paul referred when he wrote, ‘The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?’ – that is, the Lord’s Supper. Along with the ministry of the Word (the apostles’ teaching), there was the ministry of the sacraments. The Word was first and primary, but the sacraments played a vital role as signs and seals of all that the Word proclaims and promises. They frequently and regularly celebrated the Supper, remembering and proclaiming the Lord’s death, nourishing their souls upon his sacrificed body and blood, and having communion with Christ and one another.
The Prayers. These are not the personal and private prayers of believers but the public and corporate prayers of the congregation. Christian worship has always included proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the offering up of prayers. Prayers include the singing of the congregation (prayers of praise, penitence, and petition in musical form), what we call ‘pastoral prayers,’ and sometimes seasons of prayer open to all.
This is what the church can be, should be – must be. These four characteristics are timelessly and universally applicable to the church as a whole and to every congregation. It does not matter when or where or what the size of the church’s existence. This is a picture, not of the exceptional, but of the ordinary and normal church.
Here’re the People
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
We might think that these instructions are directed particularly to the church’s leadership. But Paul has just addressed the Thessalonians as brothers and exhorted them to honour and respect their leadership and to live at peace with one another (5:12, 13). It is these same brothers, that is, all the members of the congregation, whom he charges to minister to one another. Here are four things we are supposed to do for one other. In each case there is a category of circumstance and response that is to follow.
Admonish the idle The word for ‘idle’ comes from the military world and refers to a soldier who is ‘out of step.’ Think of an army formed in a line of march. Those who get ‘out of step’ are the stragglers. The infantry commanded by Gen. Stonewall Jackson were known as the ‘foot cavalry’ because they moved quickly and arrived battle-ready on the field. One of the keys to their success was that the general and his officers rode up and down the line of march making sure that everyone stayed in ranks. Paul is thinking of the church as an army on the march. Everybody needs to remain in ranks so that the army can be effective and accomplish its mission. In Thessalonica those who were unruly and undisciplined were those who, because they misunderstood or misused the doctrine of our Lord’s return, had quit working to support themselves and were being supported by the church’s mercy ministry. However, that is not the only way Christians ‘get out of line.’ Any significant and persistent departure from the ordinary expectations of Christian duty and responsibility qualifies. Paul says that, when an individual or group of believers are in a state of ‘unruliness,’ the others are to admonish them. In Thessalonica the other believers needed to tell the idle ones to get back to work and provide for their own needs. But, however unruliness may be expressed, other believers are told to confront the ‘out-of-step-ones’ verbally, pointing out what is wrong, warning of its dangers, and exhorting a return to Christian conduct. This is not harsh scolding but both tough and loving admonition.
Encourage the fainthearted. Fainthearted folks are those who are discouraged and fearful. They aren’t rebellious like the unruly; they are demoralised. In Thessalonica these were folks who were confused and downhearted as they had experienced the loss of loved ones and anticipated their own deaths. They knew that the Christian hope centred upon the second coming of the Lord, when believers would receive all the joys and blessings of his kingdom. But, the Lord had not come. What happened to those who died before he came? Would they miss out on the glory to come to believers when the Lord returns in glory?
But just as there are other forms of unruliness than living off the church’s dole, so there are other causes of faintheartedness than questions about the second coming. Lots of things get believers down and feeling uncertain they can go on. Grief, loneliness, trials, constitutional make-up, and other things produce this condition of being ‘small-souled’ or, as the KJV puts it, ‘feeble minded.’ Paul encouraged the fainthearted at Thessalonica by explaining and assuring that, whether dead or alive, all Christians would experience all the wonderful things that will occur when our Lord returns. When we are fainthearted we need other believers not to disdain or despise us, but to encourage us, not with clichés or Bible promises not proved true in the crucible of trials, but with empathetic presence, insightful understanding, together with reminders and reaffirmations of God’s truth and faithfulness that will lift up the downcast.
Help the weak. By weakness Paul means the moral failures that come from a lack of understanding Christian morality and/or from struggles with besetting sin. The particular problem at Thessalonica seems to be that among these once pagan idolaters who had recently turned to the living God, there were some who did not yet conform their lives to biblical sexual standards. But sexual sins are not the only sins of the body. And there are not only bodily sins; there are the sins of the mind and heart as well. And lust is not the only inner weakness. Think of such things as arrogance, envy, and malice. Paul’s response to the weak at Thessalonica was to strongly charge each of them to ‘control his own body in holiness and honour.’ It is important for us to note that Paul does not say about the weak, ‘ignore their sin,’ or ‘gossip about their sin,’ or ‘have no contact with them.’ He says, ‘Help them. Stand by them; strengthen them; go and get them when they stray; let them walk the path of struggling for holiness with you.’
Be patient with them all. The category is ‘all.’ That may mean all the above – the unruly, the fainthearted, the weak. The reason patience is needed is because these problems are not usually quickly resolved and because they have a tendency to recur. Or, ‘all’ may mean simply ‘everybody’ – because we all are at best works of grace in progress, who offend by our sinful attitudes, words, and actions; who irritate one another by our foibles and idiosyncrasies; whose interactions are always those of sinners with fellow sinners. Hence, patience is needed by us all from us all. Patience is bearing with, putting up with, hanging in there with, not giving up on one another. Whether it’s dealing with one another as the idle, the fainthearted, or the weak, or dealing with another as redeemed yet fallen pilgrims on the bumpy road to heaven, the church’s health, unity, and ministry will always require Christians to practice patience toward one another.
The church is unique on earth. It is not like a social or even a service club. Nor is it like a political party, or a professional organisation, or any other human institution. It is a divine institution, a supernatural organisation, a Spirit birthed and quickened organism. Here’s the church – devoted to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Here’re the people – admonishing the unruly, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, showing patience to all.
William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Mississippi.