A sermon by Steve Cooper
Good morning! Stability is a valued quality in every area of human life. Governments speak about stabilizing the economy. Builders endeavour to construct stable houses, and carpenters stable furniture. Aircraft and ships have ‘stabilizers’, to counteract turbulence and the ocean swell. And we admire people who have a stable personality, character and convictions.
The Bible says a lot about Christian stability. The Scriptures identify the winds which threaten our stability – against which we are to take our stand. Sometimes those winds become storms which threaten to sweep us away from a stable footing.
This morning let’s look at some wise words of the apostle Paul which encourage us to be stable and withstand the pressures.
Last year my wife and I took a cruise on a river boat. I recall one day which was very windy, and I ventured to the top deck to enjoy the scenery. The wind was so strong I had to cling on to railings so I didn’t lose my footing. I was glad the boat had ‘stabilizers’ to keep the boat stable, and there were railings for me to grab onto.
The journey of life is often buffeted by winds which threaten our stability. The Bible identifies three things which, like winds and storms, can make us unstable. The first is opposition or persecution against the people of God. The second is false teaching, which can lead us astray from a true relationship with God. The third is temptation. Temptations are like strong gusts of wind which threaten to blow us over.
Behind these winds lurks the enemy of God and of the people of God, the devil, who is responsible for mounting this threefold attack, physical (persecution), intellectual (false teaching) and moral (temptation to sin). Sadly, many people become unstable in the face of these gales, and are swept away.
This morning I want to read to you some wise words of the apostle Paul. In his second letter to the Thessalonian Christians, chapter 2, Paul explains the way in which we can be stable, rock-like and immovable when the winds and storms blow.
Paul begins with a thanksgiving: ‘But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you as first-fruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Thess 2:13-14).
Paul is confident in God’s steadfast love. He knows his Christian friends will face tribulation, in the present and the future, but he feels no panic. He is confident in the stability of God’s loving purpose for them. His confidence in God gives Paul confidence that his Christian friends will be stable too. It’s only because God is steadfast, that we can be steadfast as well.
Paul’s mind sweeps over a vast landscape of God’s saving purpose for his people. God chooses his people, he calls them to himself as we hear the good news about Jesus and respond with faith, he establishes us, and he will lead us safely home to our final, heavenly destiny. Paul has an assured thankfulness for the stability of God’s loving purposes. When we too are confident that God’s saving purposes are being worked out in our lives, it brings stability. The devil might mount his fiercest attack against us, we might feel feeble and weak, but we don’t need to be afraid. Over against the instability of our circumstances and characters, we see the eternal stability of the purpose of God.
Nevertheless, Paul’s confidence in God’s stability of purpose did not prevent him from taking sensible precautions. Let’s consider those after this song.
When the storms of life threaten to sweep us away from a stable footing, it’s wise to ponder the advice of God’s Word. In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian Christians, he first thanks God for the stability of God’s loving purposes. Paul didn’t conclude that because God is steadfast, he and they could sit back and do nothing. He doesn’t tell them to relax and take it easy. After his confident thanksgiving to God Paul gives an earnest appeal to them to stand firm. This is the appeal: ‘So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter’ (2 Thess 2:15).
The apostle’s appeal is a double one: ‘Stand firm!’ and ‘Hold fast!’ He seems to picture a gale or storm, in which they are in danger of being swept off their feet and of being wrenched from their handhold. In face of this hurricane-force wind, he urges them to stand their ground, to cling on to something solid and secure, clutching hold of it for dear life. Since the storm may rage for a long time, they must keep on standing firm and keep on holding fast.
Notice Paul identifies what we are to hold onto. It is the teachings of Christ and of his apostles. For us today those teachings are preserved in the New Testament. To ‘stand firm and hold to the teachings’ means in our case to be biblical Christians, to be uncompromisingly loyal to the teaching of Christ and his apostles. This is the road to stability. The only way to resist false teaching, opposition and temptation is to cling to the true teaching.
It’s worth noticing also that Paul’s appeal for stability is made to Thessalonians as ‘brothers and sisters.’ This is a recognition that we need one another in the family of God. The Christian church is the context in which we are to ‘stand firm and hold to the teachings.’ In the church we receive teaching from pastors who are duly authorized to explain the Bible’s teaching, we wrestle together with its contemporary application, and we teach and admonish one another out of the same Scriptures. Let me encourage you, if you are able, to become involved in a local church, and learn from the Bible in the environment of God’s family.
To be sure, personal and private Bible study is essential, and the Reformers were correct to emphasise what they called ‘the right of private judgement’. We should all spend disciplined time each day pondering God’s Word in the Bible. Nevertheless, private Bible study also has its dangers. Left to ourselves, it’s easy for us to misinterpret the Word of God, to put on it constructions it was never meant to bear, to manipulate it to suit our prejudices. So we need the checks and balances of the Christian family, in order to help restrain our rampant individualism and to establish us in the truth. It is the Bible in the church which can develop our Christian stability, and so strengthen us to withstand the pressures of persecution, false teaching and temptation.
How can we find stability when faced with winds and storms which threaten to sweep us away? The key is to focus on God, who is always steadfast and faithful. That’s why, after Paul expressed his thankful confidence in God, and appealed to his Christian friends to stand firm, he prays that God will establish them. Here is Paul’s prayer: ‘May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word’ (2 Thess 2:16-17).
It’s instructive to observe that Christian praise and Christian prayer go together. The fact that God promises to do something (for which we praise him), far from discouraging prayer, actually encourages it, because God’s promises are the only ground of our assurance that God will answer our prayers. Prayer is not a way of inducing God to do what he has said he will not do; it is the God-appointed way of enabling him to do what he has promised to do and enabling us to inherit his promises. Here, Paul praises God that he’s promised to give stability to his people, then Paul prays that God will fulfil that promise by establishing them. God’s promises and our prayers must not be separated.
Notice that in his prayer Paul refers to God’s love for us. Paul frequently emphasised God’s love for us. A few verses before he describes Christians as ‘brothers and sisters loved by the Lord’ (2:13). Now he describes the Father and the Son as ‘the God who loved us’ (2:2:16). Paul was always conscious of the astonishing love God showed to us when he sent his dear Son Jesus to die on the cross in our place. We are sinners deserving God’s judgment and death, but Jesus died as a perfect sacrifice in our place. Behind all God’s purposes lies God’s love. That God is love, that he has set his love upon us, that he loves us still, and that his love will never let us go, is the foundation of Christian confidence and Christian stability too. Our stability is not only impossible, but actually inconceivable, apart from the steadfastness of the love of God. As the psalmist declared: ‘Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever’ (Ps 136:1).
How’s life going for you? Perhaps you’re in calm waters, and you’re not worried about winds and storms. Even so, you know those fierce winds will come in the future, and it’s wise to be ready. Perhaps you’re right in the middle of strong gales, and you’re in danger of losing your footing. You need stability in the storm. The wise words of Paul are our guide. Look to God, who loves you with a steadfast love. Be thankful and confident that he who has chosen you, called you into relationship with himself, and established you, will hold you fast to the end. Hear Paul’s appeal to stand firm and hold on to the teachings of Christ and his apostles. With Paul, pray that God’s promises will be fulfilled for you – that you will be stable and strong in the face of the storm.
I really like the words of the song ‘In Christ alone’ which say that Jesus Christ keeps us ‘firm through the fiercest droughts and storms.’ That’s what we all need – stability. The Lord promises to keep us stable in the face of winds and gales. He offers us his Son, the Lord Jesus, as the solid rock we can stand firm on and cling on to. God invites us to pray, asking him to establish us and stabilize us.
Let’s do that now as I lead us in a prayer: ‘Mighty and loving God, we thank you that you can keep us stable when our path seems rough and difficult. Give us grace to stand firm and hold on to the teachings you have given us in your Word. Enable us to be confident, strong and encouraged as we travel on this journey with you. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.’