1 Thessalonians 5:14-15
Paul continues his message of peaceable living in harmonious community amongst the believers here. In this passage, he begins by telling them to “warn the unruly.” This is a matter of utmost importance to believers, but, almost if not more important than the correction of the brethern is the manner of the correction. Paul admonishes them to “warn the unruly, comfort the faint-hearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” Understanding that the testimony of the whole of the Church could be sullied on account of but a few who behaved inappropriately, it is in fact vital that we call back those who are straying. Not only for the sake of the testimony of the Church, but also for the very souls of those who are straying. As Jesus taught, the good shepherd will readily leave the 99 to chase after the one who strays. Or, as James teaches, “if anyone among you wanders and someone turns him back; he who turns a sinner from his way will save a soul from death.” (James 5:19-20). “If anyone among you” implies that James is referencing a believer who has gone astray, a brother or sister in Christ who has stumbled and and left the way to be lost in sin; yet, “he who turns a sinner back from his way will save a soul from death.” James, without changing subjects, describes this way that a believer can wander from the truth and be at risk of losing their soul, of perishing, and yet, that brother can be brought back, thereby “saving their soul from death.” And the reward for doing this, for saving our brethern from turning back into sin? Jesus teaches us that “if your brother sins, go and tell him his fault…if he hears you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15). This is Paul’s admonishment here, for who is the unruly? Is it not the one who does not obey the will of God? Paul warns us in the letter to the Colossians to “put to death your members which are on the earth; fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil, desire, covetousness. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience.” (Colossians 3:5-6). Those very things would cause discord amongst the Church, and thus, when we see someone having fallen into those things, we must warn them, for they are straying against the will of God.
But, looking to the remainder of the verse, we see something that is equally, if not more, important. “Comfort the faint-hearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” See, there is a manner prescribed for us to rebuke those who have wandered. If we approach someone who has stumbled and fallen into the pit of sin threateningly, their first response is to get defensive. I think of the little child who is sternly disciplined by their parents; their first reaction is anger, their second is defensiveness. They begin to make excuses to justify their behavior. And their third reaction is rebellion; “I can’t do this right so I won’t bother trying to do anything right…I can never make them happy anyway.” When we rebuke a brother or sister for falling into sin in a manner that is threatening, or malicious, then we can, rather than restoring them to the path of righteousness, actually push them away from it. We can cause someone to walk away from the faith completely if we don’t respond in the proper manner. On the contrary, if we are loving, encouraging, and comforting them, lifting them up rather than tearing them down, then we can, as the apostle James says, “save a soul from death.”
We must remember the goal. The goal of rebuking a brother or sister who has wandered from the truth is not discipline, it’s unity. It’s restoration. It’s for the Church to function truly in harmony, as a family. Jesus tells us that “a nation divided against itself will not stand.” (Mark 3:25). Thus, it is imperative that we rebuke a brother or sister who has strayed from the path, becoming unruly and causing discord amongst the Church. Those that Paul stated previously; the reviler, the drunkard, the covetous, the sexually immoral, indeed all who sin; each of these cause disorder among the Church and threaten that harmony. Thus, we must always strive to maintain the holiness that the Lord calls us to, especially amongst the Body of Christ. However, that correction must come lovingly, as from a concerned sibling or parent; not harshly, as though by the hand of a jailer or sergeant. We’re taught that the very apologetic that the Lord gave us during His earthly ministry, the very way that the world would know that we are His disciples, is by our love for one another. That love does not mean that we tolerate sin and wickedness, but rather that we correct it out of sincere concern for the eternal souls of our brothers and sisters; our sincere desire to see them returned to righteousness. It is so important to remember that each of us within the body will sin, it’s just part of our nature, and we must rely on one another to set us back on the right path each time that this occurs. And more importantly, we must consider the means that we would want our brethern to use on us when we consider how to “call out” our brethern in the Lord.
“See that no one renders evil for evil,” the apostle continues. Jesus strongly admonished us to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good for those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). If it is not acceptable in the Lord’s eyes to render evil for evil to the world, how much worse is it to do so to those who are brothers and sisters in Christ? How much worse is it to render evil for evil to your family than it is to do so to the world that persecutes you? If I pray for the well being of a man who spits in my face, and yet take that anger out on my wife, then have I truly obeyed the Lord’s commands? Have I truly loved my wife “as Christ loved the Church?” (Ephesians 5:25). No, for much worse than rendering evil for evil is rendering evil for good. Paul tells us here to “pursue what is good for yourselves and for all.” Regardless of what circumstance or behavior we encounter, our response should always be to pursue what is good, both for ourselves and for everyone else. Does this mean that I place myself before anyone else? By no means, for the one who truly follows and believes, the good of others will supercede the good for myself. It makes me think of the Psalmist who wrote, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4). See, that passage isn’t saying that He will bring you material wealth or abundance in life, but rather that when you truly delight yourself in Him, He will give you that which you would most greatly seek, the greatest gift He can offer, Himself. For someone truly living the way, truly abiding in the path of righteousness, what is good for us is the good of all. Thus, to seek what is good for myself would be to seek what is good for all. Jesus teaches us that “I was hungry and you fed Me; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited…whatever you have done for the least of these you have done for Me.” (Matthew 25:35-36,40). When we are obeying that gospel, then how can we eat to gluttony while we see others starving and still be content? Thus, the good that we seek for ourselves is the good of others. John Chrysostom teaches us that “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the door, you will not find Him in the chalice,” and again, “Not to share our wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.” We must always heed well the warning of the beloved apostle, that the Lord will “render to each according to their deeds.” (Romans 2:6).
See, to follow Christ is to look to Him as our example, and how does He respond when we offend Him? With love, compassion, mercy, grace. The whole of His purpose of assuming flesh was that we might be reconciled to Him. Remember His teaching, “If you forgive men their trespasses, then your heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, then neither will your Father forgive you yours.” (Matthew 6:14-15). Even when He was seized, He healed the wounds of the very soldiers who had come to arrest Him, and, though they rejected the truth, He prayed for the forgiveness of the very men who crucified Him. And, looking to that example, the martyr Stephen did likewise, falling asleep in the Lord with the prayer for forgiveness for his executors on his lips. How did Jesus respond when He saw a group of people about to stone a woman to death? “Neither do I accuse you, now go, and sin no more.” Similarly, when He had healed a lame man, He later saw Him in the crowd and said “I see that you are better. Now go, and sin no more, less worse things come upon you.” See, all throughout His ministry, He modeled this idea that we can never tolerate sin, but, should we lovingly approach someone and they turn from their sin, then neither should we judge them based on it. It is this idea that we are to correct others, to show them their sin, but not judge them for it, unless they refuse the correction.
This lesson to the Thessalonians is so important in our generation because it teaches us that, while we can never accept or tolerate sin within the Church, our means, our very motivation, for correcting them must be for the unity of the brotherhood and a sincere desire to restore our brothers and sisters to righteousness. We can never approach someone who has fallen into sin cruelly, or self-righteously, but rather sincerely, with the goal of bringing them back to the path of righteousness, not putting them out of the Church. Our goal must be to “gain our brother” and to “save a soul from death,” not punishment, or, as so oft is our wont, to point out our own holiness. Perhaps the most fickle of the virtues of holiness is humility, because it’s the hardest to fake, and the moment you point it out, it’s gone. And yet, it’s ever so important. Through His Prophet Micah, the Lord tells us, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8). When a brother or sister has strayed, we approach them humbly, rebuke them lovingly, and then pray that they will get back on the path of righteousness. And that is my prayer for each of us this evening, my brothers and sisters. That we may all have the boldness to confront our brethern if we see them in sin, but the grace and compassion to do so as our Lord Himself would.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.