Faithlife Sermons

Pursue Their Good

Living In Hope: 1 Thessalonians  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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When wronged by one another and the world around, the Thesslonanians are not to pay back wrong for wrong, but to pursue the good of those who wrong them. In a real-world church, people do wrong one another - no real surprise for a group of sinners being saved by grace. The Christian's call isn't just to overlook where they're wronged, to turn the other cheek, but to go further, actively and energetically pursuing the good of those who wrong them. Of course, good isn't always nice: warning and admonishing are both examples of what purusing the good can look like. Why seek their good? Because even though you have wronged God, in Christ, He didn't just turn the other cheek, but pursued your good.

Big idea: don’t retaliate, pursue their good
I expect every person watching today can think of a time you’ve been hurt by someone else. Not accidentally, but deliberately. Not with an aim to help you, like telling you a hard truth, but maliciously. Perhaps at work. Perhaps at school. Perhaps, sadly, even in the home. Maybe it was something they did, maybe it was “just” something they said to you - or about you. I know it’s not a lovely thing to dwell on, but I want to ask you to bring into your mind one time where that’s happened to you. Let me give you a moment to think...
Now I want you to press pause in your mind, step outside of yourself and consider: what is it you are wanting to do as things unfold? What’s your gut response? What is the urge you feel?
I think, if I’m honest, what I really want to do is to hurt them back. If I had the strength or the wit or the courage, I’d hurt them back, I’d level the score. And this urge to get even, this idea of taking revenge, seems to simply be human nature. We’ve been hurt - what’s the natural response? Hurt them back.
Sometimes our blood boils and we lash out, striking back. Find me a parent who hasn’t rushed to the sound of their child’s tears, only to hear “well he started it”?
Sometimes we bide our time and nurse our bitterness, plotting and planning, waiting for that perfect moment. “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” as they say. Who remembers the classic line from the Princess Bride, “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”
Endless movie plots centre on this drive for revenge - in “Kill Bill” the wronged lead character, known only as the Bride, spends over four hours in beautifully produced, extraordinarily violent revenge, seeking to “kill Bill” - to settle the score. For the record, I don’t recommend watching her do it.
But I guess when you think about Inigo or The Bride, there’s a sense in which it’s intuitively reasonable, where it seems justified - right, even, to seek revenge. Ashly Lorenzana puts it this way:
“There is nothing wrong with revenge. The wrong has already been done, or there would be no need to even the score.”
Why all this chat about revenge? <camera> Well we’ve been working our way through a letter in the bible called first Thessalonians - it’s called that simply because it’s the first letter written to a newly started church in the city called Thessalonica in modern-day Greece. And the bit of the letter we’ve arrived at addresses this drive for revenge. Seems not that much has changed in the nearly two thousand years since the letter was written.
Why does the topic come up? Why do the authors, the group that started this new church, need to write about the desire for revenge? Well that young church have been wronged - rejected, oppressed, persecuted. It’s possible some of them have been killed, even. So there’s plenty of reasons for them to be hungry for some revenge.
But one of the things I love about the Bible is how ruthlessly honest and realistic it is. And it seems, unfortunately, that this issue of revenge needs to be addressed not just because there are people outside the church who’ve done wrong, stoked the fires of revenge - but because there are people inside who’ve done wrong to one another too.
<closeup> Irrelevant because we’re just such a lovely bunch of people and nothing like this could ever possibly happen here? Well we might put on a good face for Sundays - but let’s not kid ourselves. Churches are filled up with real people - and that means they’re filled with people who are broken and twisted inside just like everyone else. Now we really do believe God is at work in us, changing us, restoring us; undoing this corruption in our hearts, making us more and more like Jesus - but often it’s a slow process, and for most of us, that work is far from done.
So what you’ve got here at church is a bunch of sinners being saved by grace - real, ordinary people. People who still hurt and wrong each other sometimes. If you tested us with a church-goodness-ometer, you’d find us mixed, just like every other church. And so for us, just like this early church in Thessalonica, we need to think and talk about what we do when things go wrong, how we handle it when our brokenness still shows through - like it does all too often.
With that in mind, let’s listen to Ruth as she reads through the short passage we’re looking at today and then we can talk and think about it some more together.
1 Thessalonians 5:15 NIV
Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
Thanks Ruth. That’s not a lot of words, but it packs a lot of punch.
Here it sounds like we’ve got people who’ve been wronged by others within the church, not just people outside. You can see that in this closing phrase which spells out who it is that should not be paid back wrong for wrong: “for each other and for everyone else” - that’s the authors’ way of saying those inside the church and those outside the church. They use the same phrasing back in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 to speak about love for those within the church, and for those outside:
1 Thessalonians 3:12 NIV
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.
Wrongs have been done by people inside the church as well as those outside. <camera> What sort of wrongs? Well, it’s not spelled out explicitly here but elsewhere in the letter we’ve heard about people taking advantage of one another sexually within the church (1 Thessalonians 4:6) - and people taking advantage of one another financially too (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). And in other letters to other early churches we see a myriad of other problems: bitter arguments, messed up families, teaching causing division, lawsuits even among the believers.
Wrongs are done by people inside the church as well as those outside. In some ways the church is just like the world around us - but we’re challenged here to respond radically differently: “make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.”
1 Thessalonians 5:15 NIV
Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
Now this idea of non-retaliation, this is something Jesus emphasises. You know the phrase “turn the other cheek”? Jesus coined that one. In Mt 5:39 he says:
Matthew 5:39 NIV
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
Don’t strike back when you’re hurt - physically of course, but in other ways too. And the root of that teaching is older still - all the way back in Leviticus in the Old Testament, the first part of the bible which is the Jewish people’s holy book, you read God’s design for how his people should respond when wrongs are done to them - wrongs done by their own people: Lev 19:18
Leviticus 19:18 NIV
“ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
<camera> Revenge feels good. Revenge makes for a good movie too. Revenge even seems justified and right on one level. But it’s not the answer. God’s people are not to seek revenge. We are not to pay back wrong for wrong - particularly within the church.
So what are we to do instead? How are we to respond when we’re wronged - and particularly, like in this passage we’ve been thinking about together, when we’re wronged even by others within the church? Because that is going to happen even if you haven’t met it yourself yet. <closeup> See, I’m often disappointed with how little progress I’ve made in becoming more like Jesus and how often I still get things wrong, still do things wrong. And the church is full of people like me.
Well we could stop right here: do not pay back a wrong for a wrong. One of Jesus’ disciples asks him how many times we should forgive one another - forgive a wrong done against us - and he makes the very generous offer of seven times. Jesus blows that out of the water: seventy seven times - until you lose count! Another time, Jesus tells his disciples
Luke 17:4 NIV
Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Remember last week Luke was talking to us about patience with one another? Now seven times in one day? That’s going to require patience!
We could stop at “Do not pay back a wrong for a wrong” - but there’s more. The Christian's call isn't just to overlook where they're wronged, to turn the other cheek, to forgive. Here we’re challenged to go further still, to aim for a higher standard: to actively and energetically pursue the good of those who have wronged us. Take a look at our verse again with me: 1 Th 5:15
1 Thessalonians 5:15 NIV
Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
How are to we respond? Always strive for their good. Let’s just pick that apart a little more.
Always - not just occasionally, sometimes, or even often. Always respond this way - even when we are wronged. Always strive for their good.
Strive - the word used here, ironically, is most often translated persecute. It communicates energy being applied, deliberate action being taken. It has the sense of pursue, run after, hunt down. Here’s the thing to get: this is not passive. Always pursue their good.
their Good - ok, this may seem straightforward, but we have to think a moment about what this “good” looks like. What does it mean in practice to always pursue their good? Baking them a cake?
<camera> Well let’s go at this the other way - let’s think about what their good isn’t. What isn’t good for someone who has wronged you? Here’s something absolutely key: it isn’t good to let them keep on doing wrong - to you, or to others. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek to an evil person, not to retaliate - but Jesus also speaks in Matthew 18 about how we should handle it when things go wrong inside church: we are to talk about it. Mt 18:15
Matthew 18:15 NIV
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.
How does this qualify as pursuing their good? Because you’re trying to win them over, show them their fault - gently and quietly “just between the two of you” - so they can change. Because it’s not good for them to just carry on. <camera> Now this might sound simple and seem easy enough in principle, in the abstract, but let me tell you in real life, this is seriously challenging.
I might dream about going and giving them a verbal smack-down, venting my rage - but let’s be honest, if I saw a fault in someone, if they wronged me, most of the time I would far rather just sweep it under the rug than have an awkward conversation about it which is actually seeking their good. Swallow the hurt and just try and forget about it, perhaps. Bite their head off and chew them out, perhaps. Thinking about it, I actually might rather like speaking to someone else about it, to grumble or gossip - but is that really pursuing their good?
If someone has wronged you, if someone is at fault, it’s for their own good that we try and show them, try and win them over, win them back to the right and the good path. Perhaps they just don’t see it. Perhaps they didn’t even notice the hurt they have caused and they’d be horrified if they knew. Perhaps they are struggling with sin and losing right now - and they know it. Perhaps you just got caught in the blast-radius. Perhaps they desperately need someone who loves them enough, and wants their good enough, that they will pray with them, gently walk with them and encourage them back towards the right path.
<closeup> So think about this for a moment: if you’ve been wronged - particularly by another believer - have you pursued their good in this way? By trying to gently show them their fault, to try and win them over, so they can change? It’s important we be realistic here: it doesn’t always work out with them responding well and changing. In fact, I expect it goes badly plenty of the time - and if I’m honest, that’s part of why I’d rather not even try. But have I really pursued their good if I don’t even speak about it? True believers should want to know where they have gone wrong, and should accept a challenge to repent, to change.
Certainly this challenge to pursue the good of those who have wronged us included calling them to change back there in Thessalonica - because it sits right next to the command to warn the idle and disruptive - warn them for their good. It sits right next to the command to regard leaders highly, leaders who are admonishing the believers - for their good. In fact, back in the Old Testament where we saw this call not to seek revenge first set out, rebuking your neighbour is explicitly part of what it means to love them - and failing to do so sees us sharing in their guilt: Lev 19.17-18
Leviticus 19:17–18 NIV
“ ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Speaking to people who’ve done wrong, who’ve wronged you - gently and quietly, with wisdom and care, yes - but actually speaking to them is an essential part of always striving for their good.
<camera> And you can go further than just speaking to people. If you carried on listening to Jesus in Matthew 18 you’d see that ultimately he’d have us pursue the good by going so far as putting people out of the church. Why? Because we’re to do everything we can to pursue their good. Perhaps - just perhaps - that might be enough to turn them away from the wrong - wrong which is not good for them.
Jesus tells us to treat them like unbelievers - that doesn’t mean we glare and them, give them the could shoulder, cancel them like Luke was talking about last week. That means we should treat them like people we desperately want to receive God’s grace through repentance, through turning away from the wrong path they are on. In fact, you can see an example of the church taking this sort of extreme measure happening there in Thessalonica in the next letter as they continue to struggle with the problems they’re already facing - 2 Th 3:15
2 Thessalonians 3:15 NIV
Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.
Not treating them as enemies, but always pursuing their good, seeking to win them back.
<camera> One quick caveat here: if you’ve got steam coming out of your ears, if you’re revved up and ready to land on someone’s doorstep this afternoon and challenge them, please double check your own heart first. Have they really wronged you? Was it really sin? Or were you just having a bad day, just over sensitive? Were you part of the problem yourself, and have you dealt with that first? Are you actually in this for their good, not just to vent? Let’s be careful with this - always pursue their good. If that’s your aim, if that’s the honest bottom line, then although this isn’t risk-free, you won’t go far wrong.
I want to close by thinking just a little about the “why” behind this. It’s not stated specifically here in first Thessalonians what should motivate this non-retribution, and beyond that, this pursuit even of the good for those who wrong us. Elsewhere in the Bible, you’d find the call to turn the other cheek, to overlook wrongs done to us, connected to the truth that God will judge - vengeance ultimately belongs to him, not to us. Romans 12:19, for example. I know there are people among us who have been horribly wronged - wronged by people who it’s pretty certain won’t repent or change. If that’s you, I think you can find comfort in that truth. We don’t need to “get them back” - because God is just, and justice will be done.
But when it comes to the pursuit of their good, I think we have to look to Jesus to understand the “why” behind that. <camera> You see, we have all wronged God. We have all set ourselves up in opposition to him. I was thinking about a pivotal moment in my own faith journey just the other day - for me, the crucial moment was this one night where, seemingly randomly and out of the blue, I suddenly found myself ready and willing to say to God “ok, you take the wheel”, ready to give up control of my life. It’s only very recently occurred to me that what happened there in that moment was repentance. It was turning away from a wilful sin. It was giving up on the lie that I should be the boss of my own life, and bowing the knee to God as King instead, the rightful ruler of me, just one teeny tiny part of all He has made.
In my old life, where I though I had the right to be the boss, I was doing wrong to God, my true King. <closeup> But amazingly, remarkably, he didn’t pay me back wrong for my wrong - instead, in Jesus, He pursued my good. Even though it was at vast cost - even though it took the life of His own Son in my place to free me from the judgement my wrongs deserved, he pursued my good. He called me to turn away from the wrong I was doing, he pursued me even though I rejected him and kept wronging him again and again. And that - that - is why we are called not to pay back a wrong for a wrong, but to pursue their good: because this is the pattern of love. God’s love for us shown in Jesus. God’s love for His church and for the world, shown in us.
If you haven’t experienced God’s love for yourself yet, if don’t know that God has pursued your good, that He comes after you not with revenge or retribution in mind, but with love, calling you to change, then let today be the day you listen to His call. Change. Turn. For your own good.
And if you know this truth that in love God has pursued your good, let that be the “why” that empowers you to do the amazingly difficult thing of letting go of revenge, and pursuing the good of those who do you wrong instead. “Forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” Eph 4:32
Ephesians 4:32 NIV
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Just a minute to quietly reflect on these things and then we’ll pray. What is God saying to you this morning?
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