Practical Proverbial, from 2 Thessalonians, 13 August 2018

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 (NIV).

Have you noticed that Paul likes flowery benedictions?   He does this in most of his letters; why?  Simple:   praise and encouragement.

In these verses, (as you can see) that theme of encouragement is especially prevalent.  Think about it:  in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he spent considerable time teaching about patterns of living in a pagan world (which was what Asia Minor largely was).   In this second letter, Paul used his time to talk about the end of times and the persecution that would happen.   Persecution was a subject his friends in Thessalonica would understand because they lived in a Roman world hostile to the nascent Christian faith.  Their city was a cosmopolitan trade hub, the largest city between Rome and Byzantium and they saw first-hand the worst the Empire could offer.  They were familiar with the brutality lashed out against anyone who ‘made waves.’   And they were familiar with people who had known Jesus of Nazareth personally, had seen and heard Him, in person and had followed Him and His teachings in the few short decades since He departed.

If you or I lived in first century Asia Minor, we might need some encouragement, too.

That’s why Paul moves to end his letter this way.   He gives praise to God, stating the reason we should do so (“who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope”), then prays encouragement over the reader (the rest of the verse).

By the time Paul ministered to the new church in Thessalonica, that city was already almost 400 years old; today it is nearly 2400 years old and is the second largest city in Greece.  His friends there understood that they would need to praise God and be encouraged in the time to come because persecution would indeed come.   Within 20 years, all the apostles except one would be murdered (including Paul), and the church scattered.   Those who held onto believing in this Jesus would need to focus on praising Him in adversity while being encouraged by constantly learning and re-learning the truth of His encouragement.

Two millenia later, have things really changed?  Thessalonica is still a major city.   Some people still follow Jesus while most of the world does not.  People overseas are still dying for Christian faith and people here are blacklisted for it.  And the gospel is still on the move, teaching about God’s grace and His eternal encouragement of how His eternity matters most here and in the here to come.  I’d say Paul’s flowery benediction has served well.

For further reading:  Philippians 4:20, John 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 2 Thessalonians 3:1.

Lord Jesus, thank You for these words you inspired Paul to share.   Let them encourage people to faith in You today.

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Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 22 November 2017

 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.  Hebrews 13, verse 13.

Jesus earned “street cred” by dying outside the city walls.   That wasn’t the intention of the Jews who murdered Him.   They wanted to discredit Him, to consign Him to a place with the worst of society.   The Sanhedrin that sentenced Jesus to death wanted to erase the memory of Him so that He would soon be forgotten.  To do that, they reasoned that having Him executed as a common criminal would cause people to abandon following Him.   By branding Jesus as a criminal worthy of death, they would so disgrace His name that people would be repelled by even the mention of it.  Within a few years nobody would remember this evangelist from Nazareth.

With anyone else, it might have worked.   After all, there is only a small handful of names we actually know out of the billions of people who lived before, say, one thousand years ago (maybe even one hundred years ago).    The people we know of (like Jesus) earned fame or honor.   Who even knows the names of condemned prisoners from Phoenicia, Babylon, Athens or Rome?   Do we know the names of the men crucified with Spartacus?  Without using Google, who are the people on death row now in Idaho?   Can you name anyone shot for cowardice during the Mexican War?   We don’t know the names of these men because they’re lost to history.

We don’t know their names because we don’t want to.   They died in disgrace.   They died in ignominy and dishonor.   You, me, and our friends don’t want to be associated with their dishonor and disgrace.  It’s like adulterers in church:  nobody wants to be associated with them because we feel like, if we are, we’ll be tainted by their sins.   It’s a stupid, highly irrational feeling even if it is a constructive psychological defense mechanism.

It’s also ungodly.   What would Jesus do?  Not that.  Jesus ran to the cross.   He wrapped Himself in the dishonor and ignominy.  Jesus knew that His sacrifice would bring glory, honor, and love to the Father.  THAT is our better example.

Luke quoted Christ in saying that each of us who wants to really follow Him must deny himself and take up his cross daily.  We must willingly, even gleefully, run outside the camp and pick up the weapon of our own death.  We must embrace the disgrace.  And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that human disgrace for faith in Jesus is worth more than all the treasures in the world.  Joy in being persecuted for believing in Jesus is the street cred of faith.

A few years ago I read the Left Behind books.   I’m not a millenialist, so I didn’t accept the rapture/7 years tribulation idea; to me, getting mixed up in the how & when details of the end of time misses the miracle of being called home to heaven.  But one scene from one of the books (I don’t remember which one) stuck with me.  In it, one of the main characters is talking with a condemned man who is on his way to the guillotine.  The man is about to die for not taking the mark of the Antichrist and instead of being hesitant about it, he is joyful.   Imagine that:   the man is about to be murdered for what he believed and he is enthusiastic about it.   He’s ebullient, joyously embracing the disgrace of dying for the one you love.   And I don’t even remember the character’s name.

But that’s just a book.   The truth of it is that that this happens here and now.   It’s been happening for real to Coptic Christians for years.   It happens wherever ISIS rules.   It still happens in Communist China, and Cuba, and Islamonazi Iran.  A watered-down version of the persecution even happens in American universities and American corporations.  I am challenged regularly online for words like these, and I have lost friends over my faith.   The best response when that happens?   Joyfully thank God and press forward.  The world thinks it’s a disgrace to believe like this.  Embrace the disgrace and advance against an enemy that has already lost even when it costs you everything.

For further reading:  Luke 9:23, Hebrews 11:26.

Lord, let me embrace the ‘disgrace’ of serving You, of loving You, of faith in You.   Teach me and uphold me to better serve you in the world.