Monday, July 16, 2012

"Thessalonica in Paul's Day"

Sabbath School Today
With the 1888 Message Dynamic
1 and 2 Thessalonians
Lesson 3: "Thessalonica in Paul's Day"

The culture of the Mediterranean world when Paul went to Thessalonica had sunk into a frightful depravity. Watching people die in violence was as much fun to crowds as a football game is to us. The sight of naked political outcasts writhing in agony nailed to crosses attracted spectators like stock car racing now. Little wonder that many, jaded by their pleasures and sadism, coveted suicide as much as many today want to win a lottery jackpot.
Onto such a world stage came this new idea of agape, a love embodied in the life and death of an obscure Galilean. What He brought to view was an idea that overturned all human values, because it revealed dimensions of God's character no one had ever dreamed of. God's Son actually died as a cosmic Outcast, nailed on a Roman cross. Did He, could He, love this evil world? People couldn't get over it.
He had revealed a love that went as far as hell, and came out the other side, redeeming the whole of lost humanity. God Himself was seeking man--not vice versa as everybody thought--and the price He was willing to pay was infinitely individualized. That is, each human being personally was the object of the sum total of His love. Slaves, outcasts, and despairing lords and ladies alike, discovered a new basis for healthy self-respect.
And with it came a new sense of humanity toward man. Attendance at the gladiatorial combats fell off; crucifixions lost their appeal; gluttony was forgotten; slavery became passé. The once-despised Man of Galilee became widely known as the world's Savior, and His cross its most honored symbol. No other religion or philosophy had ever embodied an idea like agape love. The world itself became a more pleasant place in which to live. As the idea ofagape penetrated beyond the Christian church itself, it became the secret source of stability for the human race--although often unrecognized.
Now we're there--the time Christ spoke of, "Because of lawlessness, the love [agape] of many ["most" KJV] will grow cold" (Matt. 24:12). Christ's word wickedness (anomia in Greek) means rebellion against the holy law of God, a cynical irreverence for agape, a hatred of His commandments, all with an arrogant flaunting of divine judgment.
What we view nightly on TV is a cultural love affair with death. This anomia shows up today in our ability to make sport of sexual infidelity, materialist greed, sensuality, and even crime. Hollywood glorifies it. Where once such things aroused outrage and righteous indignation, today we have an open tolerance. Most of the nightly TV shows make fun of purity and fidelity, and revel in anomia. What we are viewing is actually a cultural love affair with death.
Christ said people of today would be like those of Noah's day: "They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all" (Luke 17:27).
Can our downward spiral of lawlessness be averted before global suicide occurs?
Our only hope is to discover a heart appreciation for God's agape. The apostle John declared that "God is love [agape] (John 3:16). In agape is found "all the fulness of God" (Eph. 3:19). That one word, rightly appreciated, would put an end to wars, crime, selfishness, and corruption--what all the scientists and politicians in the world are powerless to do. But the Bible declares that the present world, as a whole, will never accept this solution.
But as individuals, we can. To believe that God loves us with this special kind of self-sacrificing agape gives us a true sense of our importance in the sight of Heaven--we are expatriate citizens of God's unfallen universe. We see ourselves as allies with Heaven, members of His "whole family in heaven and earth" (Eph. 3:15), who "may be partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). That experience is what the New Testament means by the word "faith."
Finding the solution to selfishness is not something that we do so much as something that we see. Paul explains: "[I pray that you] ... may comprehend ... what is the width and length and depth and height--to know the love [agape] of Christ, which passes knowledge" (Eph. 3:17-19). The person who has grasped doesn't have to grit his teeth and force himself unwillingly to turn away from sinful allurements; agape motivates him to do so. The evil becomes distasteful.
We have wondered how the early Christians could endure the privations they suffered in following Christ in those days of tyranny. We misread history if we assume that it was a mere hope of pie-in-the-sky, an "investment" that required foregoing present good for the return of a greater good to come. That would be next door to selfishness, a what's-in-it-for-me religion.
The gospel proclamation in New Testament times was phenomenal. The message went like fire in the dry stubble. Every new convert became an evangelist, himself/herself an effective conveyor of the message to others for the sheer love of it. At Pentecost, the fire in the stubble was so great that 3000 were converted and baptized in one day. While it is true that many rejected that gospel, it met precisely the heart-needs of honest people who seemed to "come out of the woodwork" everywhere.
As the faith of the Thessalonians went forth, so too the Bible promises a last-days' gospel proclamation even greater in scope and success than Pentecost. The only element that God's people need in order to prepare for the second coming of Christ is genuine faith. The message the world needs to hear is the truth of righteousness by faith in the light of the cleansing of the sanctuary--"the third angel's message in verity." Faith is understood in its true biblical sense--a heart appreciation of the agape of Christ. [1]
In the latter years of the 19th century fresh insights came through two young ordained ministers (E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones) who thought through something that apparently no one else had clearly grasped. They simply combined Paul's idea of justification by faith with the truth that we are now living in the great final cosmic Day of Atonement. The world's High Priest, Jesus Christ, had begun His last work of fully reconciling alienated human hearts to God.
It was an antitypical work in the Most Holy Apartment of the heavenly sanctuary that fulfilled the type in the ancient high priest's work when he entered the second apartment of the earthly tabernacle (see Hebrews 9). Christ's objective was not merely preparing people to die and come up in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:6); now His work prepares a people to meet their Lord in person at His second coming (see 1 Thess. 4:16, 17), and be translated. Only when the heart is cleansed can we be in total oneness with the Lord. Only then can it be said in all truth that "here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus" (Rev. 14:12).
The earth is to be "lightened" with the glory of a message that will have within itself self-propagating power (Rev. 18:1-4). God's people 2000 years ago were no different than honest-hearted people today. The missing ingredient is not human personality, or organizational efficiency. What is missing is the lost content of the message itself. The apostles' gospel was a self-propagating message because it proclaimed Good News about the cross of Christ and what He accomplished by His sacrifice. The News itself "constrained" those who heard it and believed it.
It won't take a long time for the Lord to "finish the work" once He has a people whose hearts are moved and melted by His agape seen at the cross. That "short work" will accomplish not only the proclamation of "the truth of the gospel" to all the world in one generation (Gal. 2:5; Matt. 24:34), but what we have thought must take decades or even centuries: to prepare God's people to meet Christ when He returns. First Thessalonians 4:16, 17 will be completely fulfilled: they will get ready to be "translated" as Hebrews 11:5 describes Enoch's experience. All done in "a short work"!
Right now is the time when the Lord's "beatitude" is being fulfilled: "Blessed [happy] are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6). Are you hungry and thirsty? There's nothing the God of heaven wants more than to give you that hunger and thirst. Ask for it!
--Paul E. Penno, and the writings of Robert J. Wieland
[1] See Robert J. Wieland, Ten Great Gospel Truths that Make the 1888 Message Unique, pp. 30ff.
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