The Church Takes A StandErwin W. Lutzer | January 21, 2007
Selected highlights from this sermon
The church of Thessalonica was facing persecution and opposition, yet they stood firm. Paul supported them by sending Timothy, supplying Scripture, and praying for them.
Our age is full of opposition, and whenever Christians stand for something, conflict will generally arise. But as long as we stay united, rooted in prayer and Scripture, we will overcome. Together, we can stand and face the world.
Let me begin today with a question: what is it that you stand for? What are those core values for which you would be willing to die? Would it be possible for someone to wave big money in your face and as a result of that compromise your integrity? At what point could you be bought, or could you never be bought? How much temptation are you willing to endure for the cause of your marriage and for the cause of your God? I say to the young people present, how much peer pressure can you put up with and not get into drugs and alcohol and those kinds of things? How strong is your stand?
We have to stand as individuals but we also have to stand as a church. The church has to stand for something. When you stand for something you immediately stand against something else. William Wilberforce lived in England and was born in the late 1700’s and lived until the early 1800’s. He stood with the slaves against slavery. He stood for something. Despite a hard time and having evil spoken against him and amid great opposition, it was his efforts that eventually put an end to that social injustice.
Churches need to make a stand. We stand for doctrine, we stand for social justice, we stand against the current of society, and we become greatly counter-cultural for what we do stand for. We also stand for the unborn because we have a stand that is important to us.
You know that this is a series of messages entitled, “When God Comes to Church.” When God comes and begins to do a great work in the lives of people there is a transformation of heart and there is a transformation of values. That happened in the church at Thessalonica. Things changed because God was there.
The Apostle Paul was talking to the church because they were going through a time of persecution. In fact he tells them, “To this you were appointed.” A hard time in the Christian life is appointed to you by God. If in your workplace, if in your relationships you are going through a difficult time, all of that is a part of the Christian life and the growing experience that all of us have as we walk with God.
Paul discovered that this church, even though vocationally it were being marginalized and they couldn’t get the best jobs, even though they were being ridiculed for their faith, and even though measures were being taken against them even including being thrown in jail, they stood. Paul says, “For that I am deeply, deeply grateful.”
The key verse in today’s message is actually found in the third chapter of 1 Thessalonians in verse eight. If you are in the habit of underlining your Bibles this would be a good verse to underline. It is very brief and it is the heart and soul of what I am speaking about today. Notice that Paul says, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” Paul is saying, “At last I can breathe again. At last I can relax and be joyful because I have heard that you are standing firm.”
The term here is a military term. It means that you stand when arrows are being shot at you. It means that you stand when it is difficult. You stand in good weather and in bad weather. You stand when others stand with you and you stand if you need to stand alone. Paul says, “Now I can live because I heard that you are standing fast.”
The Apostle Paul also says that they might not have been able to stand. You’ll notice in verse five he says, “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.” That is quite a warning! Paul says, “I was so concerned about you because it is possible that the devil derailed you in your walk with God.”
The devil does three things regarding our faith. First of all, he wants to prevent our faith. The Bible says that he even blinds the minds of those who are listening. There are some of you who are listening today who may even hear the words but it is not going to have an opportunity to sink deeply into your heart. There is a battle going on. There is even a battle going on for you to concentrate on what I am saying.
Jesus said that the tempter not only blinds the mind, but sometimes he snatches faith right out of people’s hearts. That is what it says in the parable that Jesus said about the seed that is sown, which is the word of God. Some of it falls on a hard road and the birds come and eat it. Later on he explains that the birds are the devil and he snatches away the word of God out of people’s minds. Some of you will struggle to remember what it is that I even spoke about because of the battle that is going on.
If the devil can’t do that then he discourages us. A long illness, friends that betray us and difficulties in our lives will erode our faith because that is what he is after. Paul says, “I was really concerned that maybe the devil got his way and it turns out that you really aren’t following God.” Paul was so glad to find that was wrong.
How does the Apostle Paul strengthen the church? What is his contribution to making this congregation strong enough to weather the storm? The way in which Paul strengthens the church is the very same way in which you and I strengthen each other.
When you send a child to college you want that child to have backbone. You want that child to stand against the possibility of the debauchery that will be available to him or to her. You want that child to stand. What is your contribution? What is the child’s contribution? How do we stand?
The reason it is difficult to stand is because the temptations come from within. They are the desires of the flesh and of the mind, as Paul says. Then of course there is peer pressure. At prayer meeting we are fasting and praying for prodigals. We are serious about this business of prodigals. If you ask the prodigals, “Why did you leave the faith and leave home?” almost always they say, “I got in with the wrong crowd.” It is the power of influence. So you have the struggle within and the pressure without. The temptation is that you fall away, not from the faith ultimately, but that you just live in vain because of the pressure.
How do we help people? I hope that you are ready because I am going to give you Paul’s strategy. In the end it will transform your life, the life of your friends, and the life of the church, if we take it seriously. Thanks for joining us on the journey.
First of all, the Apostle Paul encouraged the church by sending Timothy. He begins in verse one by saying, “Therefore when we could bear it no longer and I had to find out how you were doing, I sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith.” Paul couldn’t go there himself because there was criticism of him. If you’ve been following this series of messages you’ll remember he was run out of town. He couldn’t go back and he was busy in Athens. So he says, “Timothy, I’m sending you to find out how the church is doing and I want you to establish them so that they are strengthened to stand.”
What is Timothy? First of all, he’s a brother. He’s a fellow Christian. Paul said he is a fellow servant and a fellow laborer, which shows you that he was really a team player. He was going to go there not to lord over the congregation, but to help this congregation. Paul elsewhere calls him a servant, a diakonos, which is really the word deacon. What should deacons be doing here at the church? Deacons do many different things. One of the things that deacons should be doing is standing alongside of others to strengthen them so that they themselves will be strengthened in the process. That is part of the responsibility within the church of being a deacon.
In fact, Timothy was so unusual and so young that Paul kind of had to defend his youth. Paul says in Philippians, “I have no one else that is willing to care for you like Timothy. Everybody is seeking their own thing, but Timothy will have your good in mind.” So Paul says, “I’m sending Timothy to help establish you.”
How do we stand? How does the young Christian soldier in the military who is surrounded by all these opportunities to waste his life morally and in other ways, how does he stand? The answer is with the help of others. Students, when you go off to college as a Christian student the first thing you should do before you get your room organized is to find the Christian groups on campus and join them and become a part of bible studies and a part of fellowship. Apart from that I can predict with almost absolute certainty that you will not stand because nobody stands alone. That is why we need one another.
When it comes to churches how do we stand? We help one another. That’s why we sent this group to India to strengthen the church. We have resources, we have books, we have more money, and we have more opportunities to be trained then they have. So how do we strengthen the church? We go there and we send short term missionaries to different parts of the world with the intention of helping the church to stand. I say to you today my Christian friend, if you are standing, stand alongside of someone else that you can help stand for the faith and be encouraged. So that’s the first thing that Paul did; he sent Timothy.
Secondly Paul says, “It’s necessary that you have someone beside you and it is also necessary that you know something.” So he wrote 1st and 2nd Timothy. All the letters that Paul wrote are not necessarily part of inspired scripture. There are apparently some he wrote that were so localized that they were not included as inspired scripture. But 1st and 2nd Timothy are inspired scripture. So Paul wrote to them.
What did he say in these two letters that he wrote to the church? Well, he talked about himself and he was defending his ministry. He was also taking people and helping them understand those doctrines that are going to make them sound in the faith and able to stand. You can’t stand without knowledge and understanding. In 1st and 2nd Timothy he talks about God in chapter one, as we learned about, who chose the church. He talks about the church in the past; it originated in God’s heart. Then he talks about the return of Jesus Christ in the future. Thirty-three verses of 1st Timothy are devoted to the return of Christ. That topic will be one of my messages in this series.
Yet in between he speaks about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who will energize, who will help, and who will come alongside of us to help us stand and to be encouraged. You see, we need the word of God all the time if we are going to stand. The reason is because the graces that we receive day by day fade away.
At times maybe you have left a service on a Sunday morning and you have just felt that you could take on the world. Then on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday it wore off and pretty soon you were back into the same old sinful ruts. That is because the grace that you receive today won’t carry you through tomorrow. You need new grace. That is why you are in the word everyday. The Bible is the food that nourishes us, it is the light that guides us, and it is the weapon that defends us. You need the word of God if you are going to stand. It is absolutely essential.
As you know I don’t wear a clerical collar, though there are some ministers that do. There are reasons why I don’t and there are reasons why others would disagree with that, but that is not my point today. But I do think that there is one advantage to wearing a clerical collar. I heard a minister say who wears one that he wears it all the time, seven days a week. He said that it keeps him from temptations that he would otherwise fall into.
He said, “With a clerical collar you will never go into a questionable place or something that is sinful because after all, you do represent God and everybody around you knows that you represent God. So you stay away from those compromises that would make God look bad in the eyes of the watching world.”
How do we resist temptation? We have to know who we are and know who we belong to and know who we represent. That can come to us only through the word of God. It is through that we are strengthened to stand even if we must stand alone.
First of all, Paul sends someone to help. Second, he gives people information. And third, which is incredibly important, Paul says, “I pray.” Let’s look at the text now in verse nine. He says, “For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?”
Let’s just go that far for a moment. Notice the intensity of the prayer. Paul says, “I pray earnestly for you.” Notice the frequency of the prayer. It says that he prays day and night. That didn’t mean that all that Paul did was stop for prayer. But the burden to pray was so heavy on his soul that even when he was working making tents, even when he was going to the congregations, even when he was preaching, and even as he was working with people he was praying all that time. The burden was there to pray earnestly and intensely day and night.
One of the things that God wants to do in our lives is to birth within us this kind of a passion for prayer. That is why we are so thankful for those who do attend prayer meeting, though some of you can’t for whatever reason. There is a passion that God wants to develop within us so that our will and his will are harmonized. As we cry up to God with passion and fervency God says, “Now you have shown your seriousness and I will answer.”
Some of us have committed to pray one hour per week all this year and some of you are already struggling at this point in the process. The reason you are struggling is because you don’t want to say the same old thing in the same old way. But you don’t have to. How do you pray? You take the biblical prayers and you pray them. You pray chapters of the Bible. It’s amazing how prayers arise out of chapters in the Bible that you might not think are specifically devoted to prayer.
Yet notice how Paul prays for these people. He doesn’t pray like we do. Almost always we pray for physical healing. So and so has a difficulty and so we pray and we believe that is scriptural. It might be of interest for you to know that we as Elders met this morning to anoint someone with oil and to pray for her in her physical difficulties. We do believe in that.
But Paul didn’t concentrate on that. He was after bigger issues and he had other fish to fry. He was interested in praying first of all for their faith, which is what he says in verse ten. That is always what is at stake. Secondly, in verse eleven he says, “May our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another.” That is essential if you are going to stand together. And it says in verse thirteen, “So that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
What do you pray for? You pray for faith. It is the most critical element. Nobody plunges into sin unless first of all their faith is gone. If you don’t have faith in God’s goodness and if you don’t believe God’s way is best you will go the wrong way. Last Wednesday a prodigal who gave his testimony said an amazing thing. He said that he was so upset with God that he said, “All that you need to do God is to keep me alive. That is your part. Then I can run my life by myself. Your responsibility is to keep me alive and my responsibility is to do my own thing.” He had no faith that God’s way is best and no faith that there is a better way. That is faith in yourself but no faith in God.
So Paul says, “I pray for the strengthening of their faith and I pray for love.” If you have a hard, unloving heart the word of God can’t fall into it. He also says, “I pray for holiness, that you might be blameless when the Lord Jesus Christ comes.” Do you ever wonder how to pray for the pastoral staff? Do you ever wonder how to pray for your child? You pray as Paul prayed for these qualities. So God clearly answered Paul’s prayer. He says, “Now I can live because Timothy brought me word that you are standing firm in the faith.”
The bottom line is this: what we need to do is to empower people. We need a theology of power to enable people to stand. We need to empower women to be able to say no to lecherous men. We need to empower business people who will say no to compromise. We need to empower our students to say no to drugs and alcohol. We need to empower people to say, “By God’s grace and by God’s strength and with his resources we will stand.”
You say, “What is the take home message? Why should I be changed because I have heard this message?” Let me say a few things. First, remember that in the Christian walk every single inch is always contested. There is always opposition. When Paul says, “I feared that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain,” he was talking seriously about failure. He was talking seriously about somebody believing in Jesus and then going back into the world.
Even if their faith was genuine at the moment and they are Christians, he was talking about the joy that they would miss out on that they were supposed to have and the vocation that they were to have and the pleasing to God that would have been their opportunity. They could miss out on all that even though they had heard Paul preach and even though they had responded to the message.
Is there anyone here today and you say, “So far my faith has been vain”? “I was brought up in a Christian home, trusted Christ early in life, fell away and I did my own thing.” Paul would say that your faith was in vain, unless of course you return to the Lord.
Second, no Christian can stand alone. You can’t and I can’t. This is a very important point. Yesterday we had a retreat. All the elders, the pastoral staff and the directors met together the whole day to talk about Moody Church. We were speaking about what we needed to do to be the church that God wants us to be. One of the topics was the many people who come to Moody Church who are disconnected. Some of that may be our fault and some of it may be the fault of those who come who just don’t connect.
We want you to connect because you can’t live the Christian life alone and we can’t live it alone. We can’t do individually what God is calling us to do corporately as a body. When it says in Ephesians chapter six that we should stand and having done all we can to stand it says, “Take on the whole armor of God.” Then it lists all the pieces of armor.
Then it says, “Above all, take the shield of faith.” Even if you have the other pieces, without the shield of faith your faith and your confidence in God is going to be so seriously eroded that you will not stand. I’ve met Christians just like you have whose backbone was no stronger than a chocolate éclair. In other words, there was no ability to stand. Paul says, “You can’t do it alone. Somebody needs to stand with you.”
Speaking about the shield of faith, in ancient times their shields were actually interlocked so that as they marched into battle it was as if it was a huge wall that was going against the enemy because they knew that would be much stronger than all the individual soldiers.
I say to all who are listening, you need us and we need you. If you feel disconnected when the service is over take a look at the bulletin and take a look at the back of it where you have all of the Adult Bible Fellowships and ask yourself which one you should attend. That is how you can become involved in a ministry.
In fact, I learned yesterday that we have thirty small groups. I knew that we had quite a few but I didn’t know that the number was that high. Talk to Pastor Pierre or get involved in a small group and find out how you can connect because we need to stand together.
Remember that someone who stands for nothing will always fall for anything. And remember why a river is crooked: because it always takes the path of least resistance. If your life seems to be crooked you need someone to come alongside of you and say, “We are a part of what God is doing. Let us stand together.” How does that old saying go? If we don’t hang together we are going to hang separately. We need one another to stand.
There is no doubt that I am speaking to some people who may be seekers and who are kind of looking in on Christianity and trying to figure it all out. Or you may be someone who is a believer but you say, “Either way I am someone who is not standing. I have fallen. What do I do?” The good news is that God is able to cause you to stand. Remember that there is more grace in God’s heart than there is sin in your past and because of that fact we can stand.
There are two lies that the devil wants us to believe. Lie number one is that one sin doesn’t matter. He says, “Just do it once and it will not be a big deal.” Then he comes back with lie number two: “Now that you have sinned there is no use in standing.”
When I was growing up in Canada we played a game as children called “Fox and Goose.” What we did is we had a wagon wheel outside in the snow and we would play tag and we would have to stay within the lines and there were certain places where you would be safe. One thing I noticed is that when we began we always stayed within the lines. That was very important. But inevitably as would happen we would cut corners and kick dirt into it and it would be one big mess. Then we would always begin again somewhere else.
Maybe that is the way your life is right now. Maybe there is lots of ugly stuff within it. One time I slipped in a puddle with my top coat. I almost felt like staying there instead of getting up. It is easier to keep on sinning than to repent, did you know that? But to stand is much better. God is here today to help you and we are here to help you. We want you to stand and we want you to stand with us so that we are faithful and so that we can say, “Now we can live because you are standing fast for the Lord.”
There is a story, and if it is true, it illustrates this beautifully. When Mt. Vesuvius was erupting there was a guard in Pompeii whose body was found and it was fossilized. He was still standing with his weapon facing the mountain that had been coming toward him. Now if that story does have validity, wouldn’t it be wonderful if every one of us could be like that guard? The mountain is coming, there is no way for us to escape and we don’t know where to go, but we will stand with our weapon till the very end. Having done all Paul tells us that we must stand and God is able to help us.
Every once in awhile when I need encouragement I love to read the story about this document that was found in the pocket of a young African who died for his faith. There is something about this piece that he wrote that should invigorate the most indifferent person.
It says, “I’m part of the fellowship of the unashamed. The die has been cast, I’ve stepped over the line, the decision has been made and I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, and my future is secure. I’m finished and done with low living, sight walking, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, worldly talking, cheap giving and dwarfed goals. My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions are few, my guide is reliable and my mission is clear. I won’t give up, shut up, or let up until I have stayed up, store up and prayed up for the cause of Jesus Christ. I must go till he comes, give till I drop, preach till everyone knows, work till he stops me, and when he comes for his own he will have no trouble recognizing me because my banner will have been clear.”
Are you with me on that? Together we can take on the world. Alone we can’t do much. Now we can live, because may it be said that the Moody Church stands fast in the Lord. Amen!
Let’s bow in prayer. Before I pray it is your turn to pray. You may be here today as a seeker and you are wondering about your relationship with Jesus Christ. You can pray to him and receive him as your Savior. You may be here as someone who is a believer but you have fallen. Will you resolve right now to spend time in confession and repentance and faith? And let us know so that we can help you stand. Maybe you are standing and you are helping someone else stand. Maybe you have befriended someone and said, “Let’s be friends so that we can stand together.” This is your time to talk to God.
“Father, complete the work that you have begun in people’s lives. Make us a transforming community within our culture, within our world, and within our city and we shall thank you, in Jesus name, amen.”