The objective of this lesson: to stress the responsibility of Christian encouragement.
It is likely easier for a twenty-first century American to be Christian than it has been for any other people at any other time. We have the written word. We have countless study aids. Most Christians in America do not live in a hostile environment in our society.
Spend some time discussing why it is easy [simple] to be a Christian in this society, especially in the southern and southwest regions of this country.
That has not always been the situation for Christians. There have been times when Christians had nothing in writing available to the average person [do realize there are people today that have never seen or touched a Bible, and never heard the words 'Jesus Christ' in any language]. In such times [prior to the invention of printing mechanically] many of those people could not have read a Bible if they had one in their own language. It was over three hundred years after the beginning of Christianity before there was common agreement over what books belonged in the Bible! Add to those circumstances that Christianity began and often continued in hostile environments.
Spend some time thinking about and discussing first century discouragement when there was no printing press [which also meant no copiers or duplicating machines of any kind], nothing in writing available to the common person who became a Christian [no Bibles, no study aids, no song books, no mass produced written notices, no mass produced written advertisements in the congregation]. Perhaps you can talk about how much it would affect your class if there was no church building, no class room, and no car.
How much difference would it make to us Christians in America today if we had no Bibles, if we had no mechanical printing, if many of us could not read, if we did not know what writings belonged in the Bible, and if we lived in a truly hostile environment? In those circumstances in the first century, Christianity grew! Would we survive if we did not have a favored, just circumstance? Christianity could and did grow when it had no control over circumstances and was treated as if it were an enemy in society!
Too many do not realize (1) how convenient expressing faith in worship and study is for us in this society or (2) how many things/situations we take for granted. Our fortunate circumstances do not exist in many other societies today!
It is quite unlikely Christians in Thessalonica had our favorable circumstances. Acts 17:1-9 states there was violent opposition to Paul and his presentation of the gospel in that city. If the initial teachings produced a violent reaction, the continued expression of faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ could expect hostile reactions! It is quite doubtful that it was easy or convenient to follow Jesus Christ in Thessalonica!
Stress the fact Christianity began there in hostile circumstances and likely continued there in hostile circumstances. Hostile circumstances make encouragement extremely important!
In that environment, Paul's admonitions in our text become more insightful. They would follow Paul's instructions, not because they were convenient, but because of who they were as a result of being in Jesus Christ.
Their circumstances should increase our understanding of the practicality of Paul's instructions to them. Paul was not presenting some fantasy ideal. He was talking about spiritually surviving in discouraging conditions.
"Encourage one another, and build each other up ..." If Christians do not encourage Christians, who will? Will that encouragement exist because we totally agree with each other? No! How likely was it that the Christians in Thessalonica totally agreed in their disadvantageous situation? It was very unlikely! If Christians are going to grow spiritually, then Christians need to stop making it difficult for Christians to spiritually develop! Satan is all the enemy we need! Christians must be encouragers of Christians! Satan makes our spiritual development demanding! We never need to make spiritual growth more difficult for each other! Are you helping an encouraging spiritual environment exist?
Today's Christians need to realize that encouragement is a powerful way to challenge and strengthen. In some way Christians need to direct the image of congregations away from 'the institution who is harsh on its members' to 'the family who encourages its members.'
Attempts to exert external control through the demands of those not known can never accomplish the results of internal motivation created when a troubled Christian knows he or she is loved.
That includes your leaders! (5:12, 13) It is demanding to be a leader in today's congregation. For elders, spiritual leadership is far more complex than the average member realizes. Years ago the writer of this lesson worked in a congregation that had a significant infusion of new, inexperienced elders. They entered their role of leadership filled with optimism and confidence that they could cause immediate improvements. After these men became elders, they learned about a lot of realities they had not previously known. The needed improvements [which were legitimate as well as needed] involved some complex considerations previously unknown to these men or unconsidered by them. Even 'simple' improvements became complex considerations!
If Christians refuse to understand the burdens of their leaders and fail to encourage their leaders, they will live to see the day no one will accept the responsibility of leadership in congregations. If someone leads you, you must accept the responsibility to be a good follower. Godly, loving, capable people do not wish to lead uncaring, critical followers!
Leaders get a lot of criticism! Often the criticism comes from someone who does not know the entire situation or circumstances. Leaders need a lot of encouragement! Make it simpler for those who lead and teach, not more difficult! When there is reason to express appreciation for them, express it! If Christians do not encourage and work with their leaders, the time will come when no one will agree to accept the responsibility of congregational leadership.
Be thoughtful in the manner in which you criticize. Look more for reasons to extend encouragement than criticism.
Know a good leader and/or teacher leads [or teaches] because he loves you! You can do for leaders something unique: live in peace with other Christians [no one can produce your peace but you!]. If all Christians are committed to living in peace with each other because they love Jesus Christ, leading becomes a joy, not a burden. An atmosphere of congregational peace makes leadership much easier. A congregational atmosphere that is critical and filled with conflict makes leading a burdensome frustration.
He or she who is blessed to have a loving, caring leader in the local Christian community has one of life's priority gifts!
If Christians want good leadership, they need to do their part (1) by being easy to lead (2) and by seeking congregational peace!
Discuss "how I can do my part." What is "my part?"
"..., Admonish the unruly (undisciplined), encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men."
First, note all who are less spiritual than we or the Lord desires are not lumped into a single category. Those who are 'slow to spiritually mature' have different reasons for slow development. Some fail to develop personal discipline. Repentance involves a redirection of life, not merely 'joining a group I like.' Being a Christian involves self discipline and self control. Christian peace is a dynamic, living, positive reality! It requires effort and caring! Spirituality and peace do not occur in an atmosphere of 'anything goes'! Nor do they occur in an atmosphere of 'people' control! A refusal to be spiritual [because "I do not wish to be godly"] should to be challenged to know and accept responsibility.
When we lump all struggling Christians into one category by attributing to them our assigned motives, we place them in the inescapable prison constructed by stereotyping. We deny the person the opportunity of being himself or herself, and thereby rob ourselves of the opportunity to help them.
Second, some spiritually weak Christians exist in demanding, difficult, complex circumstances. A wife whose husband worshipped idols and followed idolatry's values lived in difficult circumstances! The husband of a wife worshipping at idolatrous temples who actively encouraged their children to follow idolatry's influences lived in difficult circumstances! A craftsman whose guild (union) demanded worship of the patron idol worked in difficult circumstances! Some Christians had no encouragement in their private lives, but instead received active discouragement. That circumstance is still true! A vast difference exists between not caring and enduring daily determined opposition!
The way we treat [and understand] Christians when we take the time to learn their circumstances and the impact of those circumstances on them is distinctly different from the way we treat [and do not understand] them if we know nothing about their circumstances and their reaction to those circumstances.
Third, some Christians [for various reasons] are simply weak. Today's issue is not, "How would you handle his or her circumstances?" It is, "What does he or she possess in order to fight continual discouragement?" What past problems is he or she trying to overcome? What current family opposition does he or she have to face? What bad influences surround him or her? Remember, you are not God! Do not act like you are! You are family! Act like it! Some need a hand to lift them, not a hand to shove them down. Let God judge--He knows hearts! You have been blessed! Be helpful!
Do not find fault with a Christian for being weak. If God can forgive him or her, we can forgive him or her! After all, God tolerates us! Instead of finding fault with the weak, seek the means to help a weak Christian overcome his or her weakness. Certainly, there are weak Christians you cannot help. However, just as certainly, there are weak Christians you can help. Help those you can help! Realize God can work through other Christians to help those you cannot help.
Be joyful, prayerful, thankful, do not resist spiritual influence but resist evil influences!
Every Christian must be motivated to accept the responsibility to do what he or she can do to spiritually help himself or herself. Each of us has to see our blessings and be grateful. Each of us has to be prayerful. Each of us has to resist evil in our lives. Each of us has to encourage God's Spirit in our lives.
Discussion question: How can we encourage other Christians?
Focus the discussion on how we can be more encouraging. Be practical! Discuss doable things rather than unspecified ideals. Perhaps talk about what we as class members appreciate and find encouraging.
Link to Student Guide Lesson 11
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