CHURCH ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
2 Thessalonians 3:6-18
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
October 20, 2019
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. 16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all. 17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
— 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18, ESV
Hollywood knew it had a cinematic genius in Steven Spielberg by his third film, one which he wrote and directed. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” followed regular, if not rational, ufology. A close encounter of the first kind happens when you spot an unidentified flying object soaring across the sky. A close encounter of the second kind is to discover some evidence that a UFO has landed on earth. A close encounter of the third kind is to make actual person to person contact with the alien or aliens from the spaceship. I can still hear those five musical notes.
Five centuries before Spielberg, the church found its own genius in pastor and theologian John Calvin. If Luther was the heart of the Great Reformation, Calvin was the brain. He was brilliant in his writings but concise and clear in his speech. When preaching on the reformation and the making of a true, biblical church, Calvin remarked there must be but three marks. A church encounter of the first kind is to hear the gospel and the word of God rightly preached. A church encounter of the second kind is to see the sacraments rightly observed. And a church encounter of the third kind is to be in a congregation where church discipline is rightly practiced.
Finding a body of believers who believe in a church encounter of the third kind is about as rare as a close encounter of the third kind. In other words, firm and loving church discipline is hardly more likely than spotting an alien from outer space. Most modern churches have never seen it.
Jesus Christ gave the first sermon on church discipline and it is recorded in the first book of the New Testament. Matthew 18:15-20 quotes the Lord’s words on the matter. Paul, who provides the most words in the New Testament, elaborates on the theme in the finale of his second letter to the Thessalonians.
Remember that the context of Second Thessalonians is the second coming of Christ. The best way to prepare for it, personally, is to accept the first coming of Jesus Christ as payment for sins and purity of heart. The best way to prepare for it, corporately, as a church, is to present to Christ a pure church, if not a perfect one. No church is perfect, but we can be pure through the biblical practice of church discipline.
Identify the Idle
The Apostle Paul commands some sort of disciplinary action be applied to the wayward members of this fledgling church. It goes to show that even the earliest of churches and newest of converts can quickly go astray. It is a lack of love for God not do something to restore the honor and integrity of the church, and it is a lack of love for God’s people not warn them and discipline them when they are taking wrong turns in their walk with Christ.
The problems that prompted Paul’s plea are pointed out by particular words in the passage. “Walking in idleness” is a military term to speak of a soldier out of rank or out of step with his orders. “The tradition that you received from us” harkens back to 2 Thessalonians 2:15, a commandment to keep the word of God to gather on Sundays for worship and take your place in the community the rest of the week for work and witness. Certain confessing Christians among them were idle in their worship, work, and witness for the Lord, obviously in a significant way.
It bears pointing out that the work Paul was worrying about was probably not primarily church work, but vocational work. Some of these church members were slacking off or not showing up for their jobs in a misapplication of grace combined with a misunderstanding of the second coming of Christ. In fact they were “busybodies,” which speaks of living outside the edge of responsible church membership, sound doctrine, or vocational responsibility. For spiritual and physical panhandlers everywhere the message is plain, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
To “keep away” from such sinners cannot be taken woodenly, for we must go to them to humbly talk to them about their sin. “Withdraw” is perhaps a better translation, meaning if they do not repent at the warning of one, and afterward two or more fellow church members, then the church should withdraw them from membership. It is a hard thing to do, which is why most avoid it. But the genuine Christian life, personally and corporately, is to be walked on the narrow road.
The church must stop sweeping sin under the rug. We must lovingly confront in order to correct. But we must do so in a way that identifies the negative, then accentuates the positive.
Give them Good Examples
A church encounter of the third kind is not entirely a negative experience, it also has a positive side. Without being prideful, a good Christian going after a Christian gone bad should offer to be a good example for the badly behaving brother. This is exactly what Paul, Silas, and Timothy did for the church in Thessalonica while they were members there.
“Imitate us ... We were not idle,” Paul wrote. “We worked night and day,” Paul testified of his church work and some bi-vocational handy work he did to support himself and the church, “to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.”
When you point out a problem, you must also offer to be a part of the solution. If a wayward brother is forsaking worship on the Lord’s Day, offer to bring him or meet him in the house of the Lord and perhaps share a meal afterward. If a wayward brother is not working and earning a living for himself and his family, perhaps you could offer to help him look for a job, and point out how your good work on your good job is a good witness for Christ. If a wayward brother is proving to be a bad witness because of some bad deed, show them in Scripture where such deeds are sinful, and pray with them for repentance and restoration. Never point out the darkness without turning on a light.
Church disciple is the hardest work in the church, but it is a good work, which provides the context for the easily remembered Scripture, “Do not grow weary in doing good.” The reason so many of our churches are so bad in this modern era is that we grew weary of church discipline a long time ago, or perhaps pressed it too far into legalism and judgmentalism. But it is a good work for which we have many good examples, including this one from Thessalonica.
But what happens when you do this good work and there is a bad response, or no response?
Seek Their Shame
“Have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” That sounds a little harsh on the surface, especially coming from God’s word, even the pen of the bold and blunt Paul. Shame is not usually associated with the Christian life, especially in the modern era.
There was a time, however, when Christian morals and principles were so engrained in western culture that people were actually ashamed when they sinned, or at least when they got caught. Those days are rapidly vanishing from our sophisticated society. But they should not depart from the church of the living God.
God made us in His image, intelligent, rational, moral creatures. He built one thing into our consciousness that He Himself does not need, however, and that is shame. We feel shame when we sin, a sense of betrayal of God, others, and ourselves. Shame is there to make us want it to go away, and there are only two things that make shame flee. One is biblical repentance, often wrought by the word of God and an honest word from a friend. The other is neglect, neglect of biblical teaching, neglect of a biblical world view, neglect of biblical church discipline. If no one tells you a certain sin is wrong, you will eventually believe that it is not. So, shame, while it lasts, can be a good thing, a very good and godly thing.
Please be careful how you use it, however. Never be legalistic, vaulting some personal opinion or extra-biblical commandment to the sublime height of Holy Scripture. Never be mean or combative. As Paul added, “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” The purpose of meaningful church discipline is always repentance and restoration, never punishment and banishment.
Accept God’s Peace, Presence, and Grace
At the end of the day, and at the end of Paul’s letter, those who obey the word of God in this manner can rest in the peace, presence, and grace of God.
That’s why we have to do these things together, in unity, as a true body of Christ. When everybody is worshiping, witnessing, and working as we ought, there is God’s peace. When one stumbles and we go after him before he falls, there is God’s presence (ref. again Matthew 18:15-20, especially vs. 20 in context). When we all do all that we do for the glory of God and the good of all people, there is God’s grace.
Growing and maintaining a truly biblical church is difficult, not easy. Engaging in the neglected but necessary work of church discipline is like restoring an original 1915 Cadillac instead of driving off in a brand new model. But which one is of greater value?
As we sign off on 2 Thessalonians, it seems there were two major problems in an otherwise marvelous church: a lack of understanding about the second coming of Christ; and, a lack of practical teaching on what to do with undisciplined members. Paul addressed them both to strengthen that historic church, and all present day churches who will pay attention. May God grant us His peace, presence, and grace to honor His word, glorify His name, and love His people, even it if requires a church encounter of the third kind.
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Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org