Excel in Loving One Another

Excel still more–previously we saw this phrase used of “walking in a manner pleasing to God;” today, in loving all the brethren, and living a quiet life.   Then we will transition into talking about our hope, and how true hope impacts our grieving, especially as we comfort one another with words of hope.  Today we look into 1 Thessalonians 4:9ff. 

Big picture:  what is our fellowship to be marked by?  Love, hope, and proper ambition.  

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; 

Taught, when the apostle shared Jesus’ own teaching from John 13: love one another as I have loved you. Taught also by the Holy Spirit indwelling, putting to death selfishness and every other sin opposed to loving God and others; convicting when necessary, as well as illumining our minds to know and love the truth about how Jesus loved us.

For indeed you do practice it to ward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia.  

Not only in their own city, but the whole province!  Known for labors of love.  Practicing love.  We owe love to everyone (Romans 13) and ought to love one another… perhaps 1 John is the most “practical” in what this looks like: laying down your life for one another.  Meeting needs (mentioned several times in Titus).  Bearing burdens (Galatians) and bringing comfort (2 Cor 1).  Weeping together, rejoicing together; serving with our gifts; (Romans 12).

“But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more,”

There is never a time when we’ve checked all the boxes!  Or when we’ve “arrived” and completed anything–life is not about finishing a program or doing a task.  How do we hear this call to excel without running toward striving and growing weary?  If we are honest with ourselves, the Spirit has revealed ways in the past in which we were not loving…part of this excelling is learning to listen to His Word as the Spirit applies it.

And to make it your ambition…

how do you define ambition?  How do you view an ambitious person?  Children’s Sunday school word of the week is zeal! An ambitious person is “driven,” “motivated” to act, has a goal in mind and desires to work toward it. Ambition seems like a very active word. Yet…

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.  Our ambition is not to be the most well known or famous, the one who makes everyone jealous, the one who shows off. Paul himself was a picture of this–he never came with flattering speech, he came with fear and trembling; he was nothing compared to today’s show off entertaining megachurch pastors. Many Christians today would prefer not to sit with Jesus or Paul, and listen to quiet teaching…

Our true ambition is to live a quiet life, not a flashy one. This is the opposite of ‘loud’ in the sense of being in everybody’s business, poking my nose everywhere trying to be a part of everything–believing I am at the center of it all.  Also not “oooh, look what I have!” 

And attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you,  

Cf 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; when Paul again addresses those who instead of working are being busybodies. Work is to be done heartily, unto the Lord–we cannot please Him while being lazy, or nosey.

So that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

We work, we steward, we care for families, we share and meet one another’s needs. We do this in such a way that we are not a burden, but when there is a genuine need we bring it to the fellowship. We meet pressing needs within our local body so that we can behave properly toward outsiders. They should see our care for one another, which is a testimony of Christ’s love in us. They should not see that we do not care. This means a certain vulnerability exists, allowing us to speak of our needs. And a need for discernment, because those who can work ought to–this is not a license for laziness, or for communism. This is a call to the church to love their own well.

Do not be uninformed

Vs 13-18…comfort one another with these words.  Seeking knowledge is a lot of times the thing that will pull us through.  We ought to be well informed. It is the glory of the Spirit to reveal to us what we can know! (see 1 Corinthians 2).

Consider these other encouragements to grow in knowledge: Growing in grace and knowledge–2 Peter 3; filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding…and increasing in the knowledge of God…Colossians 1; for though by this time you ought to be teachers…let us press on to maturity…Hebrews 5-6.  

So the Thessalonians had a real internal struggle–doubts, fears, anxieties; and Paul informed them of truths that would put their whole being at ease. They were then commanded to comfort one another with these words.  So–they had better internalize them, believe them, cling to them…and be willing to share!

Before we begin, remember that to “grieve with hope” does not mean the grieving is easy, or feels good, or contains no sadness. Death is our enemy, and is never to be treated as something that is does not affect us. Christ conquered death, and is the last enemy that He subdues. We do not fear the outcome because we have been raised with Christ–yet death tears us apart, body from soul. Death tears us away from loved ones. To grieve with hope is not to deny the pain, but to know that death is not final. We share our sadness and comfort one another with true comfort in our grief.

No Timeline

Paul does not here or elsewhere use any chronology when discussing the Advent of Jesus Christ.  He will return, and when He does, Paul clearly lays out what will happen–but there is no sense of  chronological order, he writes of eschatology, of all that will happen in the end.  We want to divide it out into hours, days, months, years…we want a timeframe.  Jesus said this is impossible, Paul never hints at one.  If we try to find one or create one we are either foolish or heretical. 

Verses 14-15  all the promises (in the word of the Lord) are good for those who have fallen asleep and those who are yet awake.

So the issue the Thessalonians are desperately worried about is whether their believing friends and relatives who have died before Christ’s return will really miss out on seeing His glory.  Will the alive believers have a blessing that dead believers do not receive?  The answer is found here, and is an integral part of our hope.  As we grieve, we keep this hope in mind, and we remind one another of all the promises we hope in.  The one here is:  the dead will be raised and we will join them–and all of us will be together with Him!!!!!!!!!!!  

Clouds are symbolic in OT of the very real presence of the invisible God, but should also recall to our minds when Christ ascended into heaven.  See 3:7, at the coming/advent of Jesus with His saints!  The dead will have their new body and accompany Jesus, and there is no way to work out a timeframe of how long in between that and the living being changed and taken up. 

The Trumpet Sound

But–as we see in Matthew 25, Jesus said His return would be like lightning.  Immediate?  Perhaps.  Taking 3 or 4 seconds?  Perhaps.  His Sovereign work is not restricted to chronology and logical time structures–He can and does operate outside our purview of “possible.”  

Colossians 3:4; Romans 8:19; 2 Cor 5:1-8–GLORY!  1 Cor 15, esp verses 23-25  “The fact that death is named “the last” points to the resurrection…[and] consists of happenings unobservable by men.  1

Verse 16, Jesus Christ comes with three: His own shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.  The dead rise (responding to His voice as Lazerus did!), then (but do not bother about “when?  How much later?”) we who are alive will be caught up with them. The ‘last trump’ in 1 Cor 15:52 is not a chronologically last trump, but a decisively final trump 2

Colossians 1 and 1 Corinthians 15 picture Christ as the “firstfruits” from the dead, His own resurrection body is what ours will be like.  1 Cor 15:49 says that as the earthy was like the earthy Adam, so the heavenly body will be like the Heavenly Adam that is to say Christ!  

Vs. 17  “To meet the Lord”  a phrase common in literature of dignitaries whom the common citizens go out to meet.  Reading through Plutarch, you learn a lot of what a Roman receiving tribute looked like. For a week he would parade through cities, showing off spoils from war–from the people conquered in the name of Rome. Everyone would look, and be in awe.  The imagery then for the Thessalonians would have been that Jesus is coming with great pomp and circumstance to gather His bridal party (same phrase used in Matthew 25:6) and open up the great supper of the Lamb!  Not as a fierce Roman warrior seeking his own glory; but as He who is preeminent in everything. And we come out to meet Him who has the name above all names!

Comfort in Grief

Vs. 18  Therefore, comfort one another with these words.  Grief is tricky, it is hard, it is not at all predictable and programmatic.  But our comfort is real, effectual, solid.   

The role of face to face empathy in healing our brains is undeniable. We need to weep with one another. There is much that we can preach to our own souls, but there are times when we need others to speak truth, comforting truth, into our lives. Face to face; for as we see and feel the empathy, our brains are able to process without getting stuck in coping mechanisms that lead to depression and despair and shutting down.  

So imagine a grief that causes us to cope, coping turns into habit, we cannot get out of, and we struggle then as coping leads to depression, anxiety, lethargy…  and one comforts us, and we get out of the coping rut and into a pattern of healing, new neurons are forming and pathways forming, new habits of looking to Christ in hope–and we learn to grieve with hope, and His peace guards our hearts, and we can put one foot in front of the other again…And eventually comfort one another we all await Christ’s return.

For further reflection: The truth is, we do not have to have been through an identical situation in order to offer comfort. That is the world’s way. The way of true fellowship among believers is that we offer the comfort found in Christ, we offer our selves as His hand and feet (and hugs). 2 Corinthians 1. We speak words of life and hope!

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

  1. Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, (P and R Publishing: Philipsburg, NJ;1994), 91.
  2. Vos, 141.

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