The Excellent Ones

“As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.”

Psalm 16:3, ESV

In the passage above, David revealed his love for his kinsmen. They were God’s people, which made them majestic and noble. That’s high praise for people who weren’t perfect. David’s fellow-Israelites made their share of mistakes. They had their flaws. They committed their sins. Yet, inspired of the Holy Spirit, David called them “excellent” – warts, blemishes, and all.

Does David’s complimentary language imply approval of sin? Hardly. Every adult who has ever received proper commendation, even commendation directly from God, has received it in spite of his or her sins (except Jesus, of course, who was sinless). David’s assessment of God’s people was a general statement intended to highlight their exalted status as God’s chosen ones.

God still has an exalted opinion of his people today, even though we are far from perfect. Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). “But the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psa. 147:11). God loves us so much that he calls us his children (1 John 3:1). Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11).

But doesn’t God know we have weaknesses and flaws? Yes. Doesn’t he know that we mess up from time to time and sin? Yes. Doesn’t he know that we can’t be perfect no matter how hard we try? Yes. God doesn’t love perfect people only. He loves YOU (1 John 4:8, 19). He chose YOU (Eph. 1:4). He honored YOU (Heb. 2:6-8).

Doesn’t that make you want to serve him with all your heart?

How to Have a Successful Ministry

When Paul wrote about his brief work in Thessalonica, he affirmed that his time with them “was not in vain” (1 Thess. 2:1), meaning that his work was not devoid of results. It was not fruitless. What made it so? What are the components of a successful ministry? The first twelve verses of 1 Thessalonians 2 reveal the answer.

Preach the good news of Jesus, regardless of the consequences. Paul wrote, “We had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition” (1 Thess. 2:2). Though Paul and his company had faced mistreatment for preaching Jesus in Philippi, they preached the same message in Thessalonica with courage that God supplied. Satan does not want people to hear “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), and he will do whatever he can, including the employment of human opposition, to get our focus onto lesser things. We must preach the good news anyway.

Keep your motives pure. Paul’s preaching was not “from error or impurity or by way of deceit” (1 Thess. 2:3). He did not use “flattering speech” as a “pretext for greed” (2:5). Preachers should regularly look deep within themselves and genuinely assess their motivations. Why do we do what we do? What drives us? Is it the praise of others? Do we seek power and authority? Do we want to create a personal support base like Absalom did (2 Sam. 15:1-6)? Do we seek the failure of others so we can flourish (Phil. 1:15-17)? Improper motivations often lead to improper conduct.

Remember to whom you will answer. Paul preached “not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). He did not “seek glory from men” (2:6). As a minister of the gospel, Paul understood that God had given him a sacred trust (2:4), and one day he would be called to account for how he handled it. We will stand before the same God to answer for how we have handled that same trust. It is not before the world or the church that we will stand and be judged, but God. Remembering that will keep us from altering the message to court the favor of others.

Be gentle. Paul wrote, “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). It appears that some preachers believe the path of bitterness, rancor, hostility, and vitriol to be the path to successful ministry. Paul chose a different path. He would later encourage Timothy to walk the path of gentleness, too. “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Establish close relationships with your church family. “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Though Paul was not in Thessalonica very long (Acts 17:1-9), he did more while there than just impart information. He did more than give sermons. He gave himself. Today’s preacher must remember that even though his primary focus is the ministry of the word, he is not just a worker in a sermon factory. It is tragic for a preacher to spend years in one place and yet not become “very dear” to anyone.

Don’t be high-maintenance. Paul was very concerned that he not become “a burden to any of you” (1 Thess. 2:9). Contextually, the burden Paul wanted to avoid was financial. He worked “night and day” so that the church in Thessalonica would not have to support him and his companions monetarily. He did, however, receive financial support from the church in Philippi (Phil. 4:15-16) in addition to what he earned in other endeavors. But I want to make a different application. Preachers can be a burden to the church in other ways. Do we monopolize our elders’ time and discourage them by always complaining? Do we pout and sulk when we don’t get something that we ask for? Paul didn’t wan to be a burden to anyone, and neither should we.

Practice what you preach. Paul wrote, “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers” (1 Thess. 2:10). Not only did Paul teach others to conduct themselves properly, he followed his own teaching. Few things can damage a man’s ministry than blatant hypocrisy. No preacher is perfect, and each of us will sin. The church understands that. But people can tell the difference between a man who stumbles because of weakness and a man who simply refuses to apply Bible teaching to himself.

Take your preaching seriously. The words Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 2:11 to describe his preaching convey that he approached his work with a proper sense of gravity. He wrote, “We were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you.” While there is a place for the judicious use of humor, preachers are not comedians. We are engaged in a battle for the souls of men and women. It is a solemn duty to stand before the bride of Christ and speak for God (cf. James 3:1).

Preach practically. The goal of Paul’s “exhorting and encouraging and imploring” was “so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12). For Paul, preaching was not just an opportunity to communicate information. He was preaching to change lives. Our sermons are not finished until they answer the questions, “So what?” and “Now what?” If we are not giving our listeners something that they can take home with them and use, we are hindering our own ministries.

Preacher, if you want to know whether or not your ministry is successful, see how it measures up to Paul’s work in Thessalonica. Because of the above characteristics, his efforts among them were “not in vain” (2:1). If we follow the same formula, perhaps God will grant us a fruitful ministry, too.

Romans 15-16

Note: to start at the beginning of this series, go here.

Introduction: In these final two chapters, Paul offers some parting words of encouragement, reveals his travel plans for the immediate future, and offers some final greetings to special individuals in Rome.

I. Chapter 15

A. Jesus, the servant (15:1-13)

1. The first seven verses of this chapter actually serve as a summary of what Paul taught in the previous chapter about dealing with each other over matters of opinion.

2. The strong are to be compassionate toward the weak and not be guided by a selfish desire to only please self (15:1-2). In so doing, we will be walking in the footsteps of Jesus (15:3-4).

3. Paul’s prayer for them is that God would help them to live in harmony with each other to the glory of God (15:5-7).

4. Drawing on the example of Jesus, Paul reminds them that Jesus became a servant in order to fulfill the promises made to the patriarchs and open the door of salvation to Gentiles (15:8-13).

B. Paul’s past work among the Gentiles (15:14-21)

1. As Paul begins to wrap up the letter, he makes some personal observations.

2. He commends the church in Rome for their goodness and their knowledge (15:14), even though he recognizes that he wrote some things that might have been considered bold (15:15-16).

3. Paul is proud of the work that God has accomplished through him among the Gentiles (15:17-19), and he has a strong desire to take the gospel to places that have not yet heard it (15:20-21).

C. Paul’s future plans (15:22-33)

1. Paul’s desire is to pass through Rome on his way to Spain (15:22-24). But before he goes their direction, he must go to Jerusalem to deliver money to the poor saints there (15:25-26).

2. The churches in Macedonia and Achaia were happy to make contributions for their brothers and sisters (15:27). When Paul has completed that visit, he will make his way to Rome (15:28-29).

3. He concludes this chapter by asking the saints in Rome to pray that God would make his plans a reality (15:30-33).

II. Chapter 16

A. Much of chapter 16 involves personal greetings to individuals who were members of the church in Rome (16:1-16).

B. In verses 1-2 Paul commends Phoebe to the church in Rome. She is probably the one who carried this letter from Corinth to Rome. What Paul says about her has caused some degree of controversy in recent years.

1. Paul’s use of the word “servant” in verse one is the source of debate. The word he used is the same Greek word from which we get the English word “deacon.” This has led some to conclude that there was an “office” of deaconess in the church.

2. But the evidence does not support this conclusion. The word in question simply means “servant” and can be applied generally to anyone, male or female, who serves. This is how Paul uses the word here.

C. Paul’s final exhortations involve the importance of watching and avoiding those who would cause divisions among them (16:17). He identifies them as serving their own lusts and using deceptive speech to gain a following (16:18).

D. Paul’s final words of praise are for the good news of Jesus that has been made known to the world and for God who made it all possible (16:25-27).

Conclusion: In this great letter Paul discussed the sinful condition of all mankind, the consequences of that sinful condition, the lengths God has gone to justify us in spite of our sin, the faith response required of us to obtain that justification, and how the justified should live in view of that justification. In the gospel, God has revealed his plan for making sinful people righteous, and how that good news should lead to “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

Romans 14

Introduction: Not every choice we make involves issues of right and wrong. Some choices we make involve matters of personal opinion. One of the challenges we face as Christians is being able to distinguish between doctrine and opinion. First century Christians faced the same challenge. In Romans 14 Paul addresses some of these matters.

I. Dietary Preferences and Special Days (14:1-12)

A. Paul identifies two classes of people in verse two: those who believe that they may eat anything they like and those who eat vegetables only, the latter being identified as “the weak person.”

1. The church is told to welcome the weak brother/sister, but not for the purpose of arguing over this matter of personal judgment (14:1).

2. The one who eats meat is not to despise the one who doesn’t, and the vegetarian is not to pass judgment on the one who eats meat (14:3).

3. We do not have the authority to pass judgment on the servant of another (14:4). God is the master of my brother, not me. We do not answer to each other for our decisions, but to God.

B. Another example of a matter of personal judgment is in the area of special days. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike” (14:5).

1. Whatever these days are, they are days that individual Christians are observing “in honor of the Lord.” The same is true for those who have dietary preferences (14:6).

2. The choices we make in life are not made in complete isolation. Our lives are lived for God and we belong to him, even in death (14:7-9).

C. Instead of passing judgments on each other over matters of opinion, we should focus on our own lives knowing that each person will give an account of himself to God (14:10-12).

II. Considering How Our Actions Affect Others (14:13-23)

A. Instead of passing judgment on each other over matters of personal opinion, Paul wants them to make sure that they are not putting hindrances and occasions of stumbling in the way of others (14:13).

B. Paul introduces in this section the role of the conscience and the importance of not violating it. In the case of eating meat, there is no law that prohibits eating meat. But if one cannot eat meat with a clear conscience, he should not eat (14:14).

C. Those who eat meat are to consider how that action might affect weaker Christians. If the meat-eater flaunts his right in front of weaker brothers, he is no longer walking in love and is offering the opportunity for something that is good to be spoken of as evil (14:15-16).

D. There are things far more important than eating and drinking. Righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit are more important than what a person eats or drinks (14:17). Therefore, our desire should be to pursue things that promote peace, not conflict (14:18).

E. Paul restates the importance of not destroying a brother by causing him to stumble over a matter of opinion (14:20-21).

1. Remember: to make a brother “stumble” would involve that brother engaging in the action that he thinks is wrong.

2. Just because someone thinks that eating meat is wrong does not mean that everyone else must stop eating it. But if I use my influence to get someone to eat meat in violation of his conscience, then I’ve caused him to stumble.

F. With regard to these optional matters, we should not turn them into matters of argument and division. Happy are those who do not have to wrestle with their consciences over these things (14:22). But those who do should never violate their consciences (14:23).

Conclusion: It is not always easy to allow others to do things differently, even in matters of opinion. After all, I would not hold the opinions I hold if I did not think they were right. But in matters of individual judgment, we must allow each person to answer to his master, not to us.

Romans 13

Introduction: Chapter 13 continues the practical application section of the letter. In it, Paul focuses on the Christian as a citizen. He addresses two primary areas of conduct: our relationship to civil authorities and our relationship to other citizens.

I. The Christian and Civil Authorities (13:1-7)

A. The first sentence of the chapter clearly states how the Christian should act toward those who are in positions of authority in government, which would include police officers, council members, legislators, governors, and presidents: be subject to them (13:1).

B. The reason? Because all authority ultimately comes from God and God is responsible for the existence of civil government (13:1).

1. This means, then, that “resisting” (being hostile toward) authority figures is to resist God’s appointed servants. When one does that, he can expect to “incur judgment” (13:2).

2. Civil authorities are in place to enforce laws that govern conduct. If we want to live without fear of them, then we should live in harmony with the law (13:3).

3. But if we break the law, then we should be afraid (13:4). Why? Because civil rulers are servants of God (13:4, 6) who are carrying out God’s wrath on his behalf (13:4-5).

4. This vengeance on God’s behalf includes the right to “bear the sword,” a phrase that clearly refers to capital punishment (13:4).

C. Another result of being subject to civil authorities is our responsibility to pay taxes (13:6-7). In short, we owe civil government our taxes, respect, and honor for the roles they fulfill as ministers of God.

II. The Christian and Other Citizens (13:8-14)

A. Drawing on the idea of paying what is owed, Paul summarizes how we should act toward others by emphasizing the need for love. The one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the demands of the law (13:8).

B. He explains what he means by that statement in 13:9-10. The individual commandments that govern our conduct toward others – like prohibitions against adultery, stealing, etc. – are “summed up” in the general command to love one’s neighbor. Since love does no wrong to a neighbor, to love is to fulfill the law.

C. In the remainder of the chapter, Paul highlights the urgency of molding our character into what God wants it to be.

1. It is time to wake up to our responsibilities because our time on earth draws closer and closer to an end (13:11).

2. That being true, we should “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (13:12). We should distance ourselves from immorality (13:13).

3. We should clothe ourselves with the Lord and not live to gratify the lusts of the flesh (13:14).

Conclusion: The bottom line is this: no one should ever be a better citizen or a better neighbor than a Christian.

Romans 12

Introduction: Chapter 12 marks a major shift in the letter. The first eleven chapters are often called the “doctrinal” section of Romans, while chapters 12-16 make up the “practical” section. With this chapter, Paul is essentially saying, “Here is how all of the preceding information should affect the way you live.”

I. Living Sacrifices (12:1-2)

A. Paul makes a passionate plea, based on the mercies of God as expressed in his plan to make men righteous through Jesus, that his readers present their bodies as living sacrifices (1).

B. In addition, he encourages them not to conform themselves to the ways of the world, but rather to be transformed. In that way, they would properly discern the perfect will of God (2).

1. It has always been the will of God for his people (the Jews in the Old Testament and Christians in the New) to be different from the world around them.

2. Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 1 Sam. 8:5; 1 Peter 1:14-16; 2 Cor. 6:17-7:1

II. Using Your Gifts (12:3-8)

A. Paul warns them not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think in the realm of their areas of service in the church. They were to conduct themselves soberly with a proper recognition of the gifts God had blessed each person with (3).

B. He reminds them that a single body is composed of different parts, each having its own peculiar function, but all working together for the good of the whole (4). The local church should operate the same way (5).

C. He would make the same point to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

D. Whatever your gift is, use it, whether it is prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, or acts of mercy (6-8).

1. Remember that prophecy was a miraculous gift available to the first-century church, but that it passed away along with the other miraculous gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8-10).

2. But the other gifts were not miraculous by nature. God blesses people with different natural abilities, and he expects us to use those abilities to his glory.

III. Miscellaneous Exhortations (12:9-21)

A. Exhortations regarding self and Christian family (9-13):

1. Let love be genuine, without hypocrisy (9; 1 Cor. 13:1-7).

2. Abhor what’s evil; hold fast what’s good (9; Amos 5:15).

3. Love and honor each other (10; 1 John 4:7-12).

4. Be zealous in serving the Lord (11; Gal. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:58).

5. Be joyful, patient, and prayerful (12; Phil. 4:4; James 1:2-4; Col. 4:2).

6. Be generous and hospitable (13; Gal. 6:10; 1 Pet. 4:9).

B. Exhortations regarding enemies (14-21):

1. Do not respond to evil with evil (14-17; 1 Pet. 2:21-23).

2. If at all possible, live in peace with everyone (18; Prov. 16:7).

3. Respond with kindness to your enemies, and leave the vengeance to God (19-21).

Conclusion: An important lesson to remember from chapter 12 is this – the good news about Jesus is not merely a blessed gift for us to enjoy, it also includes a solemn obligation to live for him. This chapter reveals many of the characteristics of a life lived in submission to Jesus.