You Mean I Need to Read the Directions?

by Dr. John Oliver

      One of the most interesting people I've ever known was an elderly British gentleman in my pastorate at First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia, where I pastored for several decades. When our two sons were still quite small, this distinguished retired Royal Navy officer came to me one day and said, "I want to assemble any of the toys you get for your boys." He knew my handicaps! During that time, I recall considering as gifts for them certain toys requiring assembly. Surely, I told myself repeatedly, our sons do not need them! Now, with this gentleman's help, how wonderful it would be to pick them up all ready to wrap!

     I thanked him profusely every year thereafter. Finally, one day he confessed, "It really isn't that much; I just read the directions and follow them." But, for whatever reason, I could not (or would not?) do that. I do believe I might still be in that garage trying to assemble one or two of those toys had he not done that for us.

     In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 our Lord conveyed directions for "putting together" an orderly Christian life that pleases Him. Are they too complicated or tedious to follow? Or is it possible that we do not want to take the time to read the directions carefully and to implement them? Perhaps we look at Christian living as I looked at unassembled children's toys. The task seems too overwhelming. Skip the directions and all that work! Can't our gracious Lord give us lives already ordered aright, already "assembled?" Can He? Yes. Does He? No.

God teaches us

     Happily, God's directions for Christian living come with a Helper, God the Holy Spirit: "But concerning brotherly love you have no need that I should write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another" (v.9). The Holy Spirit Himself, a gift (v.8) sent from the Father and the ascended Son, is the indwelling Helper who both instructs and empowers the believer. On behalf of the Lord Jesus Himself, He gives both understanding of the directions for an orderly Christian life and the divine aid to implement them. The dynamic link between the Holy Spirit and the believers' spirits provides both the enlightenment and the enablement.

     The Spirit of God is ever in the business of teaching the way in which believers are to go. Such direction, with the enabling of the Holy Spirit within, is a clear signal that one is in Christ and Christ is in him. Conversely, a lack of understanding spiritual directions and desire to follow them calls for a sober assessment to see if, indeed, one is in Christ. Such a lack could mean, for example, that one has adopted a theological system with wonderful information about Christ but the person is not in Christ. Or, perhaps, like the current culture with its heightened interest in the supernatural and the spiritual, one has "believed in God" without entering into redeeming, transforming life through God's only Son.

     Understanding spiritual directions and desiring to do them by the Spirit's enabling grace are not matters simply of education, erudition, or endeavor born of cultural interest. The common laborer who has the Spirit of God within can say with all biblical authority that he understands more and is wiser than all his teachers who are without Jesus Christ, brilliant and accomplished though they may be. The Spirit ever guides the believing mind and heart into all truth, to understand and follow directions for holy living. As another has said, "We are pupils all our lives through in the school of God."

God attunes us

     The Spirit's inward work attunes the believer as well, yielding another characteristic of an orderly Christian life. This tempering is manifested in believers from various backgrounds with differing interests who, nonetheless, genuinely love one another. Love for the brethren, for the household of faith, and for the spiritual brotherhood was present in the congregation at Thessalonica. Paul writes, "You have no need that I should write to you." Nonetheless, the apostle directs that such love for all the brethren should increase more and more. He calls for an abounding of the love of Christ Himself - an outflow of the abundant life the loving Christ came to give.

     Such love overcomes irksome, individual differences and natural predilections for certain personalities over others. It is more than simply caring for one another in adversity; neighbors and garden clubs can do that. It is a love for those not our friends, for those who may be not only quite dissimilar, but often quite unlikable or unpleasant. Such love among the brethren counteracts selectivity and segmentation within the body of believers.

     Perhaps God, in surpassing wisdom, has amassed in any particular congregation such an assortment of personalities in order for the unity of that household of faith to be unmistakably that of Calvary's love. The directions for an orderly, corporate church life are not to seek uniformity, but rather a spiritual unity resulting from an increasing measure of love for all the brethren. The possibility of such an orderly fellowship comes only by the Spirit's work within the believers.

     Indeed, an increasing understanding of the love of Christ Himself for all the brethren, stimulates love from all of them, not only for one another, but, more importantly, for Christ Himself. The love from Christ for all the brethren is inseparable from the love for Christ from all the brethren. "Everyone who loves Him...also loves him who is...of Him" (1 John 5:1). The presence of loving believers in a congregation creates bonds that overcome differences and manifests spiritual order. How that "bonding" and order are needed in the church in a day of chaos and confusion!

God warns us not to meddle

     Interestingly, the apostle speaks of busybodies in the same cluster of spiritual directions that calls for increased love among the brethren. "...Aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, to work with your hands, as we commanded you" (v.11). Using one of his teaching methods, St. Paul employs contrast: love for the brethren over against meddling. Busybodies are irksome and create disorder; most people avoid them. These believers neither increase in love among the brethren nor engender it in the community of faith.

     Such busybodies, present in the first-century congregation at Thessalonica, had misunderstood aspects of the apostolic preaching about the Second Advent of the Christ. If He were to return in their generation, they wrongly reasoned, even necessary work was a hindrance to awaiting His glorious appearance. With regular daily chores absent, some were idle and meddlesome. They were not walking properly (v.12). Thus, St. Paul directed them to work with their hands, mind their own business, and lead a quiet life - the quiet of heeding the rules, not of inactivity or silence.

     Not long ago World magazine reported on a revival movement among a large encampment of Gypsies south of London. The article caught my eye because I lived for almost thirty years near a sizable Gypsy community in South Carolina; the greater metropolitan area was all too well acquainted with some of their questionable ways. In the London encampment, a newly converted Gypsy began to preach and started a church with only two people. In time, most of the camp came to the Savior under his preaching.

     One day the Gypsy leaders asked British Railway officials to change the name of their subway stop from Young Street to Salvation Gate. The railway officials were understandably leery. But a report of the spiritual work among the Gypsies said, "They are paying their automobile taxes, their television licensing taxes, and even poll taxes, for love of their Savior and because they wish to live a proper [ordered] life." So the sign went up. Today on the Waterloo Line one of the stops is Salvation Gate.

     The Gypsies had heeded God's directions and "assembled" orderly lives. When a congregation or an individual reads God's directions, follows them, and strives for a "quiet and ordered life," this proper walk will be clear even to those who are outside the company of the redeemed (v.13). How essential to read the directions! They can be understood and must be followed!

     Read 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 again. Do what it says. Let the words of John Greenleaf Whittier's hymn spur you on to reap the benefits of that "quiet and ordered life."

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Dr. John Oliver

   Dr. John Oliver is Professor of Practical Theology at RTS/Charlotte. The recipient of a B.A. degree from Wheaton College, he also holds degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Th.M.), and Western Seminary (D.D.). He has enjoyed a rich career in the pastorate, including twenty-eight years as Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. A frequent conference speaker and lecturer around the world, he has also served on the boards of numerous organizations, including past terms as Ministerial Advisor to RTS.

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 1
© 2000 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Last updated 4-5-2000.