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LIVING IN GOD’S FAMILY ( I THESSALONIANS 5:15-28): Imagine you are sitting down to eat a very special family meal. Say, Thanksgiving dinner. That’s not too hard to see how we just did so recently. But picture these folks around the table: a lifelong Irish Catholic IRA terrorist escaped from Dublin prison sitting beside a militant North Irish Protestant minister; across from them sit a Hamas terrorist from South Lebanon and an Israeli war hero; then a Black civil rights speaker is sitting by a white-robed Ku Klux Klanner; next are a Hutu and Tutsi tribe members from Rwanda; and a Turkish Cypriot and a Greek Cypriot, and an Algerian terrorist and a citizen from a loyalist village – do you get the picture?
In the ’60s my parents drove us through riot-torn Detroit. We were escorted by a jeep with National Guardsmen holding machine guns. Many buildings were still smoldering. We saw racial enmity and strife at its height. Can you imagine those parties all sitting and laughing and enjoying a meal? Only and always through Christ could such an event take place. And that is exactly what the Lord’s Table and the Agape feasts were like.
Strong cultural barriers also pervaded the ancient world. Ethnic, social, religious, financial, and gender walls were towering over the society. The cultured, educated Greek or Jew looked with contempt on the barbarian or Scythian. Barbarian was an onomatopoetic word used to describe people who spoke an inarticulate and stammering speech. The Greeks intended it as a term of derision on those who were not among ‘the elite (i.e., themselves). The Scythians, above all barbarians, were hated and feared. They were a nomadic, warlike people who invaded the Fertile Crescent in the seventh century before Christ. The Scythians were notorious for their savagery. William Hendriksen notes several historical references that help to describe these people (Colossians, p.154). Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote of them,
They invaded Asia, after they had driven the Cimmerians out of Europe … and made themselves masters of all Asia. They ruled Asia for twenty-eight years; and all the land was wasted by reason of their violence and their arrogance….
They drank the blood of the first enemy killed in battle, and made napkins of the scalps, and drinking bowls of the skulls of the slain. They had the most filthy habits and never washed with water. (4.64, 65, 75)
The Jewish historian Josephus added, “The Scythians delight in murdering people and are little better than wild beasts” (Against Apion 2.269).
A fellowship including Greeks, Jews, and Scythians was unthinkable in the ancient world. Yet that is precisely what happened in the church. Christ demolished the cultural barriers separating men.
A social barrier also existed between the slave and the freeman. The slave was viewed, in the words of Aristotle, as “a living tool.” However, both slaves and freemen were saved and became brothers in Christ because they “were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free” (I Cor. 12:13). Paul reminded the Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither mate nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). He told Philemon to view Onesimus, his runaway slave, “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philem. 16).
That unity of slave and freeman was dramatically demonstrated in the arena of Carthage in AD 202. Perpetua, a young woman from a noble family, and Felicitas, a slave-girl, faced martyrdom for Christ. As they faced the wild beasts, they joined hands. The slave and free woman died together for the love of the same Lord There is no place for man-made barriers in the church since Christ is all, and in all. Because Christ indwells all believers, all are equal. He breaks down all racial, religious, cultural, and social barriers, and makes believers into one new man (Eph. 2:15).
But long term, it should also touch us as we think about our new family, our wider family in Christ. That is what Paul heads to as he winds up this letter to his friends and family members in Thessalonica. He has repeated the theme of expecting Christ’s coming each moment of life. He adds this final thought, “Living in God’s Family” is a powerful privilege. While we wait for Jesus it is our responsibility to care for that family in Christ.