how a personal letter reveals god's personal love for us.
because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of god but our lives as well.
1 THESSALONIANS 2:8B
I have this notebook filled with letters.
But I almost never read them—not because they don’t matter, but because they matter so very much. Each time I read them, I choke up with memories of our sweet church family in Pennsylvania where my husband pastored for seven years. When we moved away, they wrote us letters, a whole book filled with the most touching and wonderful words of their love for us. And when I read them, my heart and my eyes overflow with love for those blessed friends I miss so much. They were an answer to my heartfelt prayer for a family when I was far from home. And when I need to be reminded of God’s sweet provision for me, or I just need to remember my sweet Pennsylvania family, I read those letters.
Our verse this month comes from just such a letter.
The Apostle Paul had a sweet church family that he loved and missed too. And he wrote them two letters (at least): 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. And so much of his first letter reads just like the letters in my notebook. Paul reminisces about the good times they spent together. He tells them that he’s constantly thinking of them and praying for them. He says he’s been looking for opportunities to come and visit. And because he can’t manage to see them soon enough, he even sends a friend to check in. You see, Paul longs to be with these friends, and he minces no words as he details just how much he loves them. Truly, it’s a beautiful, very personal letter that displays Paul’s heart for his friends.
But why is all this personal stuff in the Bible?
Now, you might be thinking, “That’s really great and all, but why is it in the Bible? Isn’t the Bible supposed to tell us how we are to live our lives? Why do we need to know all of these personal details of this guy and his church family? Why take up so much space with all of that?” As I thought about this letter, these are some questions that came to my mind. And what I discovered will not only help us understand Paul’s heart for his friends, but Jesus’s heart for us.
So, is the Bible a book of rules for life or a compilation of personal stories?
Yes. It’s actually both of these. But truly, it’s so much more. (We’ll tackle that later). But first, let’s get at the rules. Rules are certainly an important part of the Bible and life in general. As a parent, I often give my kids rules about how they should live. Brush your teeth. Don’t hit people. Be kind. These rules are explicit teachings, because I am giving them very clear instructions on how they are to behave. In the Bible, an example of this kind of teaching would be the Ten Commandments. It’s a list of rules God gave his people. Don’t worship other gods. Honor your parents. Don’t lie. It’s passages like these that might lead us to conclude that the Bible is mainly a book of rules for living. But, let me press against this thinking a bit. Going back to my parenting example, while I do give my kids explicit rules, most of what my kids understand about how they should live comes implicitly from observing how we live our lives. For example, I may say, “be kind,” but unless I model kindness, my kids aren’t going to believe that rule matters that much. Similarly, while the Bible does have rules in it, they are almost always situated in the context of a story or a narrative. Roughly 70% of the Bible is narrative. And even the Ten Commandments are given in the context of a story. So, while the Ten Commandments are rules for living, it’s the storyline that fleshes out what obedience and disobedience looks like. So, the Bible has rules, but those rules are based in a story.
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(CONTINUED FROM ABOVE)
So, let’s zoom in on our letter.
While Paul does give the Thessalonians rules for living, they come in the context of a personal letter. Paul doesn’t just share the gospel with the Thessalonians explicitly (although he does do that), giving them propositional statements and a list of dos and don’ts. He also talks about their relationship and how he lived out the gospel among them. His personal letter expressing his loving concern for them is the implicit message here. He writes, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). But he didn’t have to write it this way. Wouldn’t it have been easier and more succinct to simply command them to love others, to share the gospel, and to share their lives with other people? As an apostle, Paul certainly had the authority to do so. But he didn’t. Instead, he did the very thing he was asking them to do. He shared his life with them as a living example, an example they followed (1 Thessalonians 1:6). He displayed the love he wanted them to exude. He shared the gospel he wanted them to share. He shared his very life with them. Paul didn’t just pen rules, he lived them out.
Paul lived out the rules he gave to his friends because that’s what Jesus did.
Paul was simply following the model that Jesus set. Jesus didn’t come just to give us rules, he came to live them out and share his life with us. And when I think about it, isn’t Jesus the culmination of our verse? Surely, we could substitute Jesus into our verse and seamlessly express his heart for us. “Because [Jesus] loved [us] so much, [he was] delighted to share with [us] not only the gospel of God but [his life] as well.” Paul’s expression of love for his friends is just a shadow of the true love he’s trying to communicate, the love of Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate one who came and shared not only the gospel of God but his life as well.
And that’s the point of everything.
The point of the Bible isn’t just to give us rules to follow. And it isn’t merely a bunch of helpful stories. There’s a point, and the point is Jesus. You see he isn’t just the culmination of our verse, but the culmination of the whole book. He’s not just the Rule-giver, but the perfect Rule-liver. He lived up to every rule he knew we would break. And he did it for us. Moreover, he isn’t just the Story-giver, but the Hero of the story. And if we let him, he will be the Hero of our story too. You see, he came to share not just the message of good news, but to BE the good news by sharing his life with us. This is his love, on full display, in his book, that he wrote for us. And I’ll tell you what, in so many places it reads like a personal letter, like Paul’s letter to his friends, like my letters from my PA family. When you read the Bible, see if you don’t hear the heart of our Lord for us, who loves us, who longs to be with us, who thinks about us all the time.
ARE YOU TEMPTED TO LOOK AT THE BIBLE AS MERELY A BOOK OF RULES?
HOW DOES THAT UNDERSTANDING FALL SHORT OF MEETING YOU ON A PERSONAL LEVEL?
HOW DOES THE PERSONAL NATURE OF SCRIPTURE HELP YOU UNDERSTAND THE PERSONAL NATURE OF GOD?
Thanks for reading,
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