Read Ephesians 2:1-10 with your family
If Christians still struggle with sin, how are we any different than unbelievers? Is Christianity just another system of moral behavior? Or does the Gospel actually change us?
The Bible clearly teaches that those who trust in Jesus are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). There is a real change between the old self that was dead in sin and the new self who is alive in Christ. One of the places we see this is Ephesians 2:1-10.
Writing to the Ephesians, Paul says, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (v.1). Then in verse 3, he says “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Without the redemptive work of Jesus, all of humanity is in a state of spiritual death.
What does it mean to be dead in sin? Paul names several things: walking in sin, following the world and Satan (the prince of the power of the air), and living out the lusts of the flesh. Let’s focus on what Paul calls “the passions” (or lusts) of our “flesh.” Notice that he is not only talking about physical desires; these are desires of both the body and the mind. Jealousy and envy are “lusts” just as much as gluttony or sexual immorality.
This gets at one of the main ways that the Bible teaches us to think about sin. In the Bible, sin is not just about external behavior. External behaviors are like the fruit of a tree; they are the outward manifestation of a person’s heart desires. We act out our loves and lusts. In other words, sinners sin because sin is what they want or desire.
Does this mean that all desires are evil? No. God created desire. When our desire for him rules over us, then all other desires begin to be put in their right places. This helps us to see that the lusts of the flesh are desires that have been corrupted or blown out of proportion. It may be a desire for the wrong thing. It may be a desire at the wrong time or in the wrong place.
Take, for example, the desire to please other people. Pleasing other people isn’t necessarily evil. Bringing genuine joy to those around us is a good thing. However, desiring to please others becomes a sinful lust when it replaces our desire for God. This can be expressed in many ways. You may be overly self-conscious, always wondering what others think of you. Wanting to please your peers may lead you into making fun of someone at school. Or, maybe, for the sake of impressing your boss, you deal unfairly with a coworker or competitor. In these examples, our desire to please others (peers, bosses, etc.) leads us into disobeying God’s commands to trust him, to love our neighbor, and to treat others with justice.
Now, if being dead means that we once lived out sinful, disordered desires, then being made alive must mean that our desires are being transformed by God. Romans 6:17 says, “you who were once slaves to sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus puts us in a right relationship with God. To be in a right relationship with God means that we are no longer his enemies; we are no longer rebels against him who seek our own way. Instead, we are rightly related to him as sons and daughters. And if we are true sons and daughters, then our ultimate desire is to love, honor, and glorify God – not only outwardly, but from the heart.
This is what separates the Gospel from moralism. Moralism focuses on outward behavior. Moralistic religion offers standards of good behavior or “morals” without changing the heart. In moralism, it is up to us to muster up the willpower to become better people. This is the basic “religion” of many Americans. People say: “I’m not perfect” (i.e., I haven’t lived up to the standard of morality), “but I’m trying to become a better person” (i.e., I change myself and my behavior). This is moralism, and it is not the Gospel.
The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died and rose again for us, in order that we might die and rise again with him. What needs to be changed is not merely our behavior, but our selves. True transformation begins in the heart. We need to be changed from people who hate God into people who love him. This change of heart – this dying and rising again – is not something we can accomplish for ourselves. Instead, it has been accomplished for us by God in Christ Jesus his Son.
A changed heart with changed desires is one of the key differences between an unbeliever and a Christian. The unbeliever neither knows God nor loves him. The unbeliever is driven and motivated by what Paul calls the lusts of the flesh. But the person who trusts in Jesus has been given a new heart, so that their ultimate desire is for God. Thus, Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). This love for God is itself a gift from God. And it is the fountainhead from which the rest of the Christian life flows.
Do Christians still struggle with the lusts of the flesh? Yes. In Galatians, Paul says that the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh (Gal. 5:17). Sinful desires still inhabit the believer. However, God has given us his Holy Spirit to dwell in us, and by his power, we put to death the deeds of the old self (Rom. 8:13). We are not eliminating desire; we are putting our desires in their right places, under the Lordship of Jesus.
God does not leave us in our sins and lusts. He has changed us; he has given us a new heart. We are no longer children of wrath, but sons and daughters. And as we allow our desire for him to rule over our desire for all other things, we are becoming more and more the true sons and daughters that he has created us to be.
Discuss: What are the desires that motivate you the most? Do those desires rule over you, or are they submitted to the rule of God? What are some desires that need to be changed or transformed by God?
Read 2 Thessalonians 2 with your family
2 Thessalonians 2 is a famously difficult chapter to interpret. Futurists interpret this passage as a prophecy that will be fulfilled in our future. It is about what will happen right before Jesus returns for the resurrection and last judgment. On the other hand, Preterists (meaning “past”) interpret this passage as a prophecy that has already been fulfilled. It is not about the coming of Jesus to raise the dead; instead, it is about the judgment of Jerusalem and the temple, which occurred in AD 70.
Faithful Christians continue to debate how the details of this chapter should be interpreted. This need not discourage us. Though certain aspects of the passage may be unclear to us, they were certainly clear for Paul and his original readers. This is a reminder that the Bible was not written directly to us – that is, we aren’t the original recipients. Nevertheless, the Bible is written for us – for our salvation and sanctification. So, there is still much that we can learn.
Since we don’t have space to discuss every detail of this chapter, let us focus on a few of the things that are clearly taught.
The Temptation of Lawlessness
In the “man of lawlessness,” we see the recurring temptation to set oneself up as God. He sits in the place of God, even declaring himself to be God. This is what the serpent promised to Adam and Eve in the Garden: you will be like God. Pagan emperors are prime examples of how man tries to exalt himself above God. In the days of the early church, Roman emperors proclaimed themselves to be gods or descendants of the gods.
In our modern context, we may not exalt any individual person as a god, but we are still drawn to the promise of human power. Our modern gods are celebrities, or “the party,” or even “the people.” We may believe that if only our political party comes to power, then all things will be made well. Or, we may be tempted to reject God’s Word because it is unpopular with the majority.
But we do not only try to be gods in society and politics. We also encounter this same temptation at the individual level. Maybe you’re not trying to be king of the world, but perhaps you are trying to be king of your own life. You are willing to believe in Jesus so long as he doesn’t interfere with your plans or your own personal beliefs and preferences. We still want to be in control over our own lives. We are willing to accept Jesus as savior, but not as our King.
Jesus shows us a different way. Jesus shows us that true kingliness means becoming a servant to others. He teaches that if we try to hold onto our lives – if we try to grasp onto wealth, or good looks, or worldly prestige – then we will lose it. But if we die to our old selves, if we surrender our lives to him and seek his kingdom, then we will find true life in him (Matt. 16:25).
Discuss: What are some of the ways that we try to exalt ourselves above God, either in society or in our individual lives? Is there something in your life that you won’t let go of – that you are trying to control – instead of trusting God?
The Danger of Self-Deception
As we read elsewhere in the Bible, Satan may persecute and even kill God’s people, but he cannot ultimately deceive them into following him (Rev. 13:7-8). In other words, those who trust in the power and wonders of the “man of lawlessness” (whoever he is) are not believers, but “those who are perishing” (v.10).
Let us take a closer look at what Paul says about those who are perishing. Why are they deceived? Paul tells us in verse 10. They are deceived “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” When people reject God’s salvation and follow idols, it is not an honest mistake. Instead, sinners reject God because they refuse to love God’s truth. They are deceived because they have already decided that they don’t want God.
In Romans 1, Paul says that God’s invisible attributes are displayed in creation, so that men are without excuse. But, in our sin, we suppress this knowledge of God. Because of that, says Paul, “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Rom. 1:24). God’s judgment against sinners is to give them up to their sinful desires.
Paul makes a similar point here in 2 Thessalonians 2. Verse 11 says, “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.” God is not deceiving innocent victims. Remember, Paul is speaking of those who reject the Good News – those who refused to love the truth and so be saved. Because they have already deceived themselves, God gives them up to be deceived by lawlessness.
Discuss: What are some ways that we deceive ourselves about sin? about ourselves? about God?
Called through the Gospel
If it is true that we have all been deceived by our own sinful hearts, then how can anyone be saved? The good news is that God intervenes to save us from our own sin and self-deception. Paul writes, “…we ought to always give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (v.13). Here, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they are not among those who are perishing. Instead, they are loved by the Lord and chosen by God.
But they are not the only ones who will be saved. Paul calls them the “firstfruits” of salvation. In agriculture, firstfruits are the very first crops to be harvested. But after the firstfruits, the rest of the harvest is still to come. So, the Thessalonians, along with other first-century believers, are the first of many generations of peoples who will be saved, who will believe in the truth of God.
For us, then, salvation is available just as it was for the Thessalonians. “To this he called you through our gospel,” writes Paul, “so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v.14). How does God bring salvation? How does he save people from their sin and self-deception? How does he break through hard hearts? By calling people through the Gospel of Jesus.
Paul calls this “our gospel.” Of course, he doesn’t mean that the Gospel belongs to him or that he invented it. He means that he is the one who preached it to the Thessalonians. He was the instrument that God used. In this life, we cannot see who is ultimately saved and who isn’t. God has not given us knowledge into other peoples’ hearts. Instead, Jesus calls us to follow him in proclaiming the Gospel to all people. Since that is the case, let us strive to share the Good News with everyone that God has placed in our lives.
Read 2 Thessalonians 1 with your family
For the next few weeks, we will be going through 2 Thessalonians. In today’s post, we will be looking at 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12.
Faith and Love
Like many of his other letters, Paul begins 2 Thessalonians by offering thanksgivings to God: “We ought to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing” (v.3).
A couple things are noteworthy about what Paul says. First, we see that growing in faith and love go together. Do you ever wonder if you are growing in your trust in God? Then see whether you are growing in your love for others. It’s been said that faith doesn’t just stay in your head, it also comes out through your “fingertips.”
Second, Paul emphasizes that each member of the church is growing in their love for others in the church (v.3). Love is acted out on particular people. It isn’t vague or generic. To say that one loves “people” or “humanity” in general is easy. To actually love your flesh-and-blood neighbor – that sibling who always gets on your nerves, that classmate who likes all the things you dislike, that church member who seems to have nothing in common with you – that is difficult.
Thus, one sign that we are growing in our faith is that our love for particular people is increasing, especially our love for the people within our own churches. Do you love that person who is awkward or difficult? Or, perhaps you are the one putting unreasonable demands on others; are you willing to humble yourself and put the interests of others before your own (Phil. 2:4)?
The Justice of God
The Thessalonians Christians were suffering persecution at the hands of their fellow countrymen (see 1 Thess. 2:14). You could imagine them asking, “If God is just, then why are we suffering at the hands of evil men?” In verse 5-10, Paul reassures the Thessalonians that God is just. Rather than being evidence of God’s injustice, their suffering will be the occasion for God to demonstrate his justice. In the last day, God will repay those who afflict the Thessalonians, while giving the Thessalonians relief. Thus, God’s righteousness is demonstrated when he vindicates those who trust him while punishing those who afflict his people.
This is one of the places in Scripture where the doctrine of eternal judgment is clearly taught. Those who persist in their rejection of the Good News of Jesus will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (v.9).
In our day, the idea of eternal punishment for evildoers may seem unfashionable. How could a loving God really punish people? But it is not God’s sense of justice that is out of proportion. Instead, it is the sinner who is out of proportion. Our sense of right and wrong, good and evil, has been distorted by our sinful rejection of God. In Romans 1:18, Paul says that God has clearly revealed himself in creation, but men, in their unrighteousness, suppress the truth about God. This is willful ignorance, a refusal to acknowledge God as God. It is like saying to God as to an enemy, “Who are you? You’re nothing to me.” When we reject the knowledge of God and refuse to receive the Gospel of Jesus (v.8), that is what we are saying.
This is one of the things that makes Hell so terrifying. Hell is where God eternally gives the sinner exactly what they’ve been asking for. The sinner spends his whole life walking away from God, calling evil good and good evil, making things crooked. The slide towards destruction may be steep, but, more often, it is a gradual slope – disobeying parents while young, indulging lusts here and there, holding small grudges, secretly building up pride and self-righteousness.
All of this is saying “No” to God. Hell is where all those little “No’s” become an eternal “No.” Having spent his whole life running away from God, the unrepentant sinner is eternally excluded from God’s presence – excluded from his glory, his joy, his light, his life. If we didn’t want God in this life, why would we want to be where he is for eternity?
In this sense, we see that those who were persecuting the Thessalonian Christians were really rejecting God himself. What do your actions (what you do) say about your desires (what you want)? Are you becoming a person who says “Yes” to God, or a person who says “Yes” to Self?
Glorying in Christ
This doctrine of eternal judgment should not cause us to gloat over unbelievers or have a vengeful attitude towards those who wrong us. We should want everyone to repent and be saved through Christ.
Consider that Paul himself was once one of the great persecutors of the Church. He put men and women in prison for their faith in Jesus (Acts 8:3). He used to breathe “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). What the persecutors were doing to the Thessalonians, Paul once did to the churches in Jerusalem and Judea.
So, as Paul writes these words about God’s justice, he is not writing as the self-righteous Pharisee he used to be. Paul knows that he once stood under the very same judgment of God that he is writing about. He knows how his sin – his hatred and enmity towards Jesus – was pushing him towards the eternal destruction of Hell. And he realizes that it is only by the grace and mercy of God that he has been redeemed.
May that be our realization as well. Our sins may not be Paul’s sins, but we’ve been saved from the very same sentence of condemnation. And like Paul, we were not saved by our own doing; it is all gift, all the grace of God. Jesus died for us, so that in him, our old sinful selves would be put to death and be raised again.
We haven’t only been saved from something; we’ve also been saved for something. Look again at verse 11. The NIV puts it this way: “…we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.” God is transforming our desires into desires for good things. He is making us a people whose actions flow from our trust in him. In other words, by God’s grace, we are becoming a people who say “Yes” to him in all things.
This is what it means to glory in Christ. We no longer live for our own glory, but for his. Instead of saying “Yes” to self, we say “Yes” to God through Christ. Now, Paul says that when this happens, Jesus is “glorified in you, and you in him” (v.12). As we live for the glory of Jesus, we are also glorified in him. We get to share in his glory. This is where we find true glory – in knowing Jesus and making him known.
Prior to the shelter in place orders, we had been studying 1 Thessalonians in youth group. In this post, we’ll wrap up our study of this letter.
Read 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 with your family.
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
25 Brothers, pray for us.
26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.
28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 (ESV)
Paul concludes 1 Thessalonians with a series of exhortations to the Thessalonian church. While this passage may seem like a list of miscellaneous advice, it gives us a glimpse into how the Good News of Jesus should infuse all of life. Through the Gospel, the Thessalonians had experienced a complete transformation of who they were and how they lived, turning from idolaters into worshipers of the true and living God (1 Th. 1:9). In his concluding exhortations, Paul instructs the Thessalonians on how they are to continue growing as a people set apart for God.
Let’s break down Paul’s exhortations into three general areas. As we go through them, consider how God may be calling you to obey him in these areas.
Esteeming Spiritual Leaders
God has placed certain people in our lives to be “over” us in the Lord (v.12). This includes pastors, elders, deacons, and others who serve, but it also extends to parents and spouses. These ministers are to work hard in admonishing us in the Gospel. In response, we are to “esteem” them in love (v.13).
Discuss: Are we esteeming those whom God has appointed to counsel us and care for us spiritually (pastors, elders, deacons, parents, etc.)? Are we teachable? Do we ask for prayer? Or are we taking a “lone ranger” approach to our faith?
Be at Peace
Last week, we talked about the false peace that comes from being in the darkness. As Christians, we have a peace that comes from God, a peace grounded in the hope of salvation (1 Th. 5:8). But it is also a peace that must be practiced. In verse 13, Paul says that we are to be at peace “among yourselves.” In this sense, peace cannot only be individual. If we are quite secure in our own selves, but not at peace with family members and others in the church, then we don’t really have the peace that Paul is talking about.
This means that we can’t just sweep sin under the rug. To have genuine peace, we must deal with genuine problems. Thus, Paul writes, “we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (v.14).
Notice that Paul is not only writing to the pastors, but to all the believers. While none of us is able counsel everyone, all of us can bring godly counsel to someone in our lives. Sometimes, what a person needs to hear is a firm but encouraging word. Other times, what they need is help or comfort. Always, we are to address one another in love and patience. Another way of saying this is that we are to do good to all (v. 15).
Discuss: Are you at peace with your family and the people in your church? Is there someone you need to admonish? Is there someone you need to cheer up? Is there someone who needs your help? In this time, how can you be seeking the good of your parents, your children, or your siblings with whom you live?
Paul says that we should “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (v.16). In his commentary on 1 Thessalonians, F. F. Bruce writes, “To ‘pray without ceasing’ does not mean that every other activity must be dropped for the sake of prayer but that every activity must be carried on in a spirit of prayer.” In other words, Paul is not to say that we should never do anything else except rejoice, pray, and give thanks. Rather, rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving ought to be infused into everything that we do. These are foundational attitudes that we bring to all of life.
This kind of godly cheerfulness, prayer, and gratitude is possible only when we are grounded in what God has already done for us and what he will do for us. Gratitude is the response to God’s gift of life and salvation. Prayer recognizes that we depend upon God for all things. And we rejoice as we remember that “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9).
Discuss: When do you find it hard to rejoice? To pray? To give thanks?
Listening to God
Paul’s last exhortations have to do with paying attention to God. “Do not quench the Spirit,” he says, “Do not despise prophecies” (vv.19-20). We should not ignore what God may be saying to us through those who proclaim his Word. Neither should we starve ourselves of our own personal reading of the Bible.
Nevertheless, we do not accept every voice, but we are to “test everything” carefully (v.21). In Deuteronomy, God commanded Israel to ignore any so-called prophet who enticed them to leave the Lord and serve other gods (Dt. 13:2-3). In the same way, we must test all things against the standard of God’s Word. We should hold fast to all that God’s Word reveals as good, true, and just, but we should refrain from all forms of evil.
Discuss: What voices are you listening to (music, news, etc.)? What images do you allow into your imagination (books, TV, etc.)? What sources do you trust for how you should think and feel about God, yourself, and the world?
Look back again at Paul’s exhortations and notice how often he says “all” or “always” or something similar. As we mentioned earlier, Paul is not giving us a list of random tips about life. When Paul first arrived in Thessalonica, he proclaimed the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Thessalonians believed this message with "full conviction," and as a result, they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Th. 1:9-10). Once idol worshipers, the Thessalonians experienced a total transformation in who they were and how they lived. The Gospel transforms all of life. It is like yeast that works its way through the whole lump of dough.
We are reminded of this in Paul’s concluding benediction: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:23). To be “sanctified” means to be set apart for God. Every aspect of ourselves and our lives is being set apart for him. There is no isolation of the ordinary from the supernatural, no separation between the spiritual and physical. All of it belongs to Christ.
Discuss: Why should the Good News of Jesus’s death and resurrection impact all of life? As Christians, we often “compartmentalize” the Gospel instead of letting it infuse all our living. Why do we do that?