Driven By God
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
With gratitude, I thank the Lord that He has enabled us to reach our final message in a 12-part series entitled, "Distinctives of a NT Church." Throughout the past 11 weeks we've examined a plethora of issues that should define a biblical church as it is presented in the Scriptures. Our intent has never changed. Since God defines the church, owns the church and builds the church, our purpose is to see whether we characterize His expectations of a church. What we choose to call ourselves and the building itself are of little concern in the mind of the Creator (though throughout the centuries great confidence has been put in these matters). Rather, God defines His church as a collection of born-again believers, committed to following the Scriptures, passionately in love with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Specifically over the past three months, we've examined some distinctives (though by no means exhaustive) that should mark a true biblical church: pursuit of joy in our Christian responsibilities, appreciating gender and age roles and responsibilities, Christian ministry, spiritual growth and maturity, rejoicing in affliction, appreciation for biblical truth, desire for repentance, unity in the body, and understanding the role of church leadership. Last week in particular we studied the church in Ephesus who lost her first love, namely Jesus Christ. That church was a negative example. This week we will study the church in Thessalonica who by their faith and conduct became an encouragement to Paul and example to other churches. That church was a positive example.
So I ask you again, are we corporately a New Testament church? Or better yet, since the church is built by living stones (people, not bricks and mortar), are you a New Testament believer? Our objective this morning is to see how we compare with the Thessalonian church. Though they were not perfect, they did win great praise from the Lord based on several spiritual elements.
In reviewing last Sunday's sermon, I challenged the warriors at the prayer meeting this Wednesday as to the sincerity of their first love. I mean, when we strip off all the "religion," what's left? Think beyond our WWJD bracelets, fish bumper stickers, church steeple, wooden cross, stained glass windows, nice Sunday morning clothes, Christian vocabulary, righteous conduct in front of others and church attendance. When you strip it all away, what's left? Only you can answer that question.
Like the church in Ephesus, we can play the religious game all we want, but the Lord is in the business of a relationship. He seeks a changed heart no longer bent on the things of the world, but one that desires to live for His glory. The people in Thessalonica were such individuals and a pattern for us to emulate.
I'd like to start by showing you the big picture before we begin to dissect this chapter. It's imperative to follow Paul's logic in the discourse of verses 1-10.
After an introduction in verse 1, Paul gives his objective of the chapter in verse 2, "We give thanks to God always for all of you." That is his thesis. Everything builds off his desire to thank God for the Thessalonian believers so much that a member of the Trinity is mentioned in each of the 10 verses except one, for a total of fourteen times! Initially stemming off that objective are three participial phrases in verses 2-4 ("ing" words) which elaborate the thanksgiving: making mention of you in our prayers (verse 2), constantly bearing in mind (verse 3), and knowing brethren, beloved of God (verse 4). As on the outline, verses 2-4 compose our first section, "Thankful hearts of the missionaries" (namely those mentioned in verse 1, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy).
Verses 5-10 compose our second section, the second point on the outline, "Changed hearts of the church." All of this section grounds or gives reason for what was said in verse 4. In other words, because of God's choice of them (verse 4), the missionaries experienced great success (verse 5). Because of God's choice of them (verse 4), the Thessalonians experienced great transformation (verses 6-10). I will try to maintain Paul's logic as I present this lesson in order to get a true sense of his authorial intent. Considering the bulk of information in these 10 verses, I am only permitted to present the landscape, but I trust you will see our objective which is how this church honored the Lord.
Allow me to read verse one and then we will begin our first point on the outline together. "Paul and Silvanus and Timothy (missionaries who planted the church on the second missionary journey and authors of the letter, primarily Paul) to the church ("called-out ones"-we'll see that) of the Thessalonians (recipients of the letter) in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (the Thessalonian church was living in God) Grace to you and peace (a combination of both Greek and Hebrew greeting to express a rich theological truth)" (1 Thes. 1:1).
1. THANKFUL HEARTS OF THE MISSIONARIES (2-4)
Now the first point, "We give thanks to God always for all of you" (1 Thes.1:2a).
In reading those lines you can imagine the missionaries' excitement over the Thessalonian church. "We give thanks to God always." I was thinking this week… is there anything for which I am thankful? Do I always express that thanksgiving to God? Do I always express that thanksgiving to God always?
I am thankful for my salvation, my wife and children, my church, my health, my home…my, my, my! Rather in this verse, Paul and his companions were very thankful for a church hundreds of miles away composed of people they barely knew. And the thanksgiving wasn't a blanket statement for the church, but the text literally says, "for all of you." There were no favorites! Continual thanksgiving for everyone! Further, notice that the missionaries' source of thanksgiving was God, the Giver of all good and perfect gifts, the One who deserves the ultimate credit.
Why was Paul so thankful? It was not simply because he loved the people, but because he rejoiced in seeing God perform His mighty acts of grace among these people. Paul wasn't simply thankful for the people (what they meant to him), he was thankful for the God who was working in and through the people (what they meant to God)! The man put aside himself and lived for the glory of God! We should be no different today.
Paul now goes on to elaborate the thanksgiving (outlined in the three sub-points).
Thankfulness for the Prayer's Content
Though it is implied, Paul makes it clear in the first participial phrase in verse 2 that the manner of his thanksgiving was through his prayers, since our prayers are the only connection directly into the presence of God. Naturally, the missionaries, according to the text, were constantly on their knees for the Thessalonian church. And furthermore, since this church was one of many they planted, you get a glimpse of the time invested and the priority appointed to an endless devotion to prayer.
Thankfulness for the Thessalonian's Conduct
If the manner of thanksgiving was prayer (verse 2), the occasion of thanksgiving was the church's conduct mentioned in verse 3. Three attributes of these believers jumped out at the missionaries. They were attributes that gave evidence that God was working in their hearts. Specifically they were faith, hope and love. Of these attributes, John Stott said, "Each trait is ongoing and evidences a regenerated life." Calvin defined the triad as, "A brief definition of true Christianity." Bengel summarized them in a similar way, "In these the whole of Christianity consists." Faith, hope and love were the three traits that marked the Thessalonian church corporately. Let us examine them together.
First was a work of faith. Allow me to re-shift the words to clarify the meaning, "work resulting from faith." We all are quick to uphold the Protestant doctrine clearly outlined in the Scriptures that man is justified by faith alone. We in no way can take credit for any part our salvation. Elsewhere Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast." I could take you to 50 more passages in the Scriptures that teach the same thing. But, the Protestant church has fallen short in their thinking that the faith can be present without works in the Christian life. The Reformers said it well, "We are saved by faith alone (Period), but the faith that saves is never alone." Though works do not save an individual, they are essential by-products of our faith and evidence that the Spirit of God is working in our heart. "Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself" (Jas. 2:17). Works will always be present where genuine faith is present.
Though the text does not allow us to be dogmatic regarding the specific deeds of the Thessalonian church, the missionaries make it clear that their faith was genuine. Not because they prayed a prayer, not because they said they believed, but rather because they performed good deeds resulting from their faith. Their faith was the catalyst that enabled them to serve God by deeds that furthered His kingdom and not their own agenda.
Second, Paul commends the church for their labor of love. Rephrased, "labor prompted by love." The original Greek word for labor is kopos. It is a word you should be familiar with from last week. It means, "working to the point of exhaustion." Christian labor, hard work for the Lord, is essential for believers in the Christian life. But our labor is meaningless in the eyes of the Lord if we perform our deeds without a spirit of love. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13 that, "without love I am nothing." We must truly love those whom we serve. We must especially love the Lord and view our ministry simply as an overflow of our devotion unto Him. That was the Thessalonian church. They were praised not only for their labor, but also their love. Dick Mayhue said it well, "They loved God so much they ministered to the point of being exhausted and weary." Their love went the extra mile, it was self-sacrificial, and it was more than simply an emotion. It was a verb. It acted. It labored. It followed the example of their Savior, who labored on the cross simply because of His great love. And just as Jesus labored for this church in love, this church took great joy in laboring for Jesus in love.
Finally, the missionaries praised God for the Thessalonians steadfastness of hope. Put another way, "hope validated by steadfastness" The Greek word for steadfastness is hupomone. The word brings forth connotations of remaining under a weight. If you read the remainder of the letter (1:6; 2:14), there was no doubt that this church was experiencing severe persecution. The persecution was simply stemming from their allegiance to Christ. The simple solution to get out from under the weight is to reject Christ. The persecution is guaranteed to stop. It is that simple. Yet the church did not fall away. They patiently endured in the midst of their trials. What enabled them to persevere was their hope specifically in the return of the Lord. They knew that God sees everything and will eventually right every wrong. Our hope too is in a just God who will return to this earth one day and vindicate His people. This is often the only incentive and certainty that enables the Christian to endure opposition.
Three Substances (work, labor and steadfastness), Three Qualities (faith, love and hope), and Three Perspectives (God, others and the future), marked this Thessalonian church. Their faith was validated by their works, their love was validated by their labor and their hope was validated by their patient endurance. All of it was done (end of verse 3) "in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father." The overwhelming demonstration of the church's faith, hope and love enabled Paul to boldly conclude in verse 4 that God had called these people unto salvation.
Thankfulness for God's Choice
"Knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you." (1 Thes. 1:4). In this third sub-point, the missionaries list the ultimate reason for their thankfulness. They understood that the Thessalonians were men and women, beloved by God and chosen from eternity past to receive His redemptive love. I believe it is not Paul nor anyone's intent here to expound on the doctrine of election; rather it is his intent to show how confident he was that God was practically working among the individuals of this church. For instance, he begins the phrase with the participle "knowing." The word in the Greek brings forth a confident awareness. Their spiritual condition and state made God's presence inevitable.
Though we cannot see the wind, we can measure it by its effects. A large tree being swayed can't move on it's own; it needs great power to generate the movement. Likewise, the movement of God is unseen, but as the Spirit makes His presence known, the results are cataclysmic. The missionaries clearly observed these supernatural changes in the life of the Thessalonian believers as a work of God. The changes were so clear, that the Paul and his company now spend the remainder of the chapter proving that these people were truly beloved by God and called to be His children.
2. CHANGED HEARTS OF THE CHURCH (5-10)
We move from thankful hearts of the missionaries to changed hearts of the church.
Again, Paul and his cohorts were confident that God was working in the lives of the Thessalonians. Notice how their confidence, as we have read thus far and will continue to read, was not based on a prayer, a baptism, an isle walked, a denomination attended or a hand raised. Rather it was based on the presentation of the gospel from the missionaries' viewpoint in verse 5 and the reception of the gospel from the Thessalonians viewpoint in verses 6-10.
Testimony of the Presented Gospel (5)
Verse 5 lists four components that the missionaries experienced as to God's presence among the Thessalonians. First, according to the text, the gospel did not come in word only. Now naturally God's message of salvation is encapsulated in words, as words are basic to intelligent human communication. Salvation is impossible without a clear articulation of the gospel! But as many of us sadly know, a clear articulation of the gospel does not guarantee that an individual will embrace the message and turn to God for forgiveness. We are all aware of the parable of the four soils. In a nutshell, the parable teaches that the majority will reject the good news to their own detriment. A few chapters later in Matthew, Jesus said, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it" (Mt. 7:13-14). Even the Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary the world has ever known, had his message rejected on more than one account!
That is why Paul stresses in verse 5 that the gospel didn't come with words, only! There must be more! For men and women dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), God must open blind eyes and soften hard hearts to enable them to see the glorious truth and turn to God for salvation. Otherwise the message falls on deaf ears and is nothing more than foolishness in the heart of the unbeliever. Other gospels come in word only, but the Christian gospel is different. According to verse 5 the gospel also comes in "power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." Oh yes, words are important, but the Spirit will only use the words He spent 1,500 years writing as they are contained in the Scriptures! We must never divorce the marriage between the Word and the Spirit. Oh yes, words are important, but in order to affect a legitimate change there must be power from the Holy Spirit. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, "And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God." Acts 1:8 proclaims, "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth."
The missionaries experienced that power because they knew their words could never persuade anybody. Simply put, without the Spirit's witness, ours is futile. Furthermore, if our words could persuade, the glory would be ours. This way all the glory goes to God, both for the message and enabling people to receive the message.
The reception of the message was so strong among the Thessalonians, that the missionaries experienced a full conviction and profound assurance that God was moving hearts in their midst.
Testimony of the Received Gospel (6-10)
Well you may ask, how did the missionaries know that God was moving an individual's heart? How did they know that their spoken words of the gospel were being empowered by the Holy Spirit? Again, we turn to the results they witnessed as they are recorded in verses 6-10, our final sub-point for the morning.
First of all verse 6 records that the Thessalonians changed. They changed not simply in speech, but also in action. Specifically they became imitators (mimhtai), where we derive the English word "mimic," of both the missionaries and the Lord. God gives the church older mature believers to provide an example (though imperfect) of Christian conduct in the Lord's physical absence. Please don't misunderstand! The Scriptures are sufficient and our ultimate goal is to imitate Jesus Christ. But a personal human illustration often provides great assistance. Even Paul boldly said in 1 Corinthians 1:11, "Be imitators (same Greek word) of me, just as I also am of Christ."
In addition to a transformed lifestyle that followed the conduct and character of Christ and His missionaries (verse 6), the church also received the Word in much tribulation.
There's no doubt that this was one way to imitate Christ. After all, He was the Man who experienced unjustified suffering throughout His life (betrayal, denial, misunderstandings, hatred, and rejection). There's no doubt that this was also one way to imitate Paul. He was beaten with rods in the Philippian jail just days before his original arrival in Thessalonica. The blood had barely dried. Paul even refers to that account in 2:2 of this letter, "But after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition."
Jesus said in John 15:18, "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you." Two verses later Jesus said, "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." These Thessalonian believers realized the cost of following Christ, and these Thessalonian believers experienced the cost of following Christ. But nevertheless, these Thessalonian believers still chose to follow Christ despite the tribulation. They did it without doubt or hesitation. And according to the remainder of verse 5, they did it with great joy! Why? Because the same Holy Spirit which empowered them to receive the gospel in verse 5, empowered them to rejoice in their salvation despite the hardship (in verse 6)!
Was God doing a mighty work in their hearts? You bet He was! Average people don't receive the gospel with eagerness. Average people don't turn from sin to follow a righteous Jesus. Average people don't receive something that they know will bring suffering into their lives. Average people don't rejoice in the midst of suffering. They don't, unless, God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit is working in their hearts! Outward opposition and inward joy has been a hallmark of the Christian church throughout the ages. "These things I have spoken to you (Jesus said), that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33).
The fruit from the Thessalonian's conversion was so profound that God was using them to produce a third generation of Christians. Just as they followed the example of Paul and his companions, verse 7 says they became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Greek word for example is tupos. Literally it means an "exact representation." It came to be used for the impression made by a blow such as a seal on wax, an impression struck on a coin or an engraving on a stone. Dick Mayhue said, "The Thessalonian church was so active in their faith that they were used by God to literally shape the lives of all other believers in Greece… they helped produce a third generation of Christians." Leon Morris concurred, "The imitators in their turn were imitated." Like their forefathers, they became examples themselves!
How were they followed? How was their testimony made known? It was not by sitting back and reveling in their new life with comfort. They actively sought to reproduce that new life in others! Verse 8 says, "The Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you." The believers in Thessalonica, through their lifestyle and gospel message, heralded the Word beyond their church doors. The text says, "It sounded forth." The Greek word (execheo) is the derivative of our English word "echo." An echo only repeats what was originally heard; they echoed God's Word. The Word of God reverberated through the hills and valleys of Greece.
When I think of something sounding forth, I think of those warning sirens that reverberate through the shore communities. Belmar has a regular siren. Spring Lake's sounds like a dying frog. I didn't realize your emergency systems are on standby, needing a siren to evoke them to action. The first time I heard the siren was about 3:00 in the morning. It scared me right out of bed! It frightened the daylights out of me! When you hear sirens like that in the Midwest at 3:00 in the morning, you're running for the storm cellar, because a tornado is about to reduce your home to splinters! That siren is loud! I'm sure even those beyond Belmar hear that siren. It reverberates, it goes forth well beyond its borders. In the same way, the Word of God reverberated into the district of Macedonia (that's the regional district); it reverberated into Achaia (that's the national district); and we read in verse 8 that it reverberated in every place (that's the global district).
I pray beloved that that will be our desire as well. I don't just want our families or Main Street or South Belmar to hear about our faith in Jesus Christ. I want the world to hear about our faith in Jesus Christ! I want the Lord to use us to get the good news of salvation into the hands of hundreds, thousands and millions worldwide. I want the gospel to spread as a thunderous echo from this church to countless multitudes internationally that don't experience the joy of a relation with Jesus Christ. And believe it or not, God used the Thessalonian church before the advent of telephones, fax machines, airplanes and the World-Wide-Web. And this Thessalonian church was only a few months old; we have 55 years under our belt! What makes us think that worldwide missions is a far-fetched goal? Dream big! We serve a big God! And with Him all things are possible! I know many of you believe this! I'm so encouraged when I see you walking out with a dozen Ultimate Questions under your arm. I know you are continually sharing your faith with family, friends, and strangers. Keep it up! I know a man in this flock that has begun praying that the Lord would eventually begin a local Seminary as an overflow of our ministry at The Grace Tabernacle.
Ironically, the Thessalonians witness reached it's way back to the missionaries. They commented in verse 8, "We have no need to say anything." The Jerusalem Bible translated it well, "We do not need to tell other people about it, other people tell us." God was real! Their enthusiasm couldn't be contained! Instead of the missionaries needing to spread the wonderful news of the Thessalonian church, the news was spreading so fast that it was returning to the missionaries from others! The church was the talk of the town! Beloved, if our gospel could spread as fast as our gossip, great things would be accomplished for the kingdom of God!
The received report contained two specific parts. First (in verse 9) was the reception that the missionaries had with the Thessalonian church. But second and even more radical were the Thessalonians actions of turning, serving and waiting.
Verse 9 says they turned to God from idols. We are now given a sense of the depravity of these people. They were idol worshippers. Mt. Olympus (home of the gods) was only 50 miles away. It was the majestic mountain that supposedly trembled by the power of Zeus. The Thessalonians rejected gods and idols that were worshipped by their ancestors throughout the generations, and a new way of life was pursued. They realized these idols were "vain things" as the Scriptures call them. They realized that these idols didn't provide freedom, but rather enslaved the worshipper in a position of bondage.
But simply turning away from idols is not genuine salvation, unless there is a sincere desire to turn to and serve the living and true God as verse 9 concludes. The church made a radical change. They rejected what was dead and pursued what was living. They rejected what was false and pursued what was true. They rejected what was many and pursued what was One. They rejected what was created and pursued the Creator. They experienced true conversion, turning away from the negative and turning to the positive, new life in a personal communion with the Living God.
Finally in verse 10, they waited just as we all do, for the return of God's Son Jesus Christ from heaven to consummate His kingdom. The One who was raised from the dead. The One who promised that He would return in the same way He ascended. The One who delivers us (as verse 10 teaches) from the wrath to come.
Romans 1:18 says, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." God's wrath is His righteous and holy premeditated response toward those who persist in evil and reject His offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Though we don't like to discuss it, God's wrath is real, God's wrath is nonnegotiable, and God's wrath is uncompromising. According to verse 10, God's wrath is certain.
Yet there is deliverance through the person and work of Jesus Christ. As the text says, He delivers us (not everybody, just those who accept the message) from the wrath to come. Christ delivered individuals in the Thessalonian church. Is He at present delivering you?
Generally, as we consider the Thessalonian church, how does The Grace Tabernacle match up? Are others in Christendom praising God because of our faith? Does work result from our faith and labor from our love? Do we endure hardship because of our hope? Is there clear tangible fruit that makes our calling and election obvious? Is the Word received in this church with the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts? Are we imitators of the Lord? Would other churches do well to imitate us? Do we experience tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit? Has the Word of the Lord sounded forth from us? Do we turn from vain 20th century idols? Do we truly serve the Living and true God? Are we eagerly awaiting and anticipating the return of Christ?
Does that describe our church? Better yet, does that describe you? If not, I begin where the apostle Paul began with the Thessalonian church. Do you know the Lord? Is your life consumed with the glory of God? Is it evident to you and others that the Spirit of God is transforming your heart? What idols are you cherishing? Not wood or stone… but modern day idols such as work, hobbies, ambitions or addictions. Many of these can (if abused) demand an allegiance which is due God. I would encourage you right now to turn and put your faith in Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. God will punish sin, but Jesus Christ took the punishment for that sin. It was only through His work on the cross that the wrath of God was appeased and salvation was bought for those who would believe and repent of their sins.
Listen carefully, apart from Jesus Christ, the Scriptures clearly declare that the wrath of God abides on unbelievers. John 3:36 is clear, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." Even in his second letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul said, "For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thes. 1:6-9). I pray that you will put your faith in the Savior today, before it is too late and experience the joy of eternal life now and well into the future!
And believer, for those who know the Savior, I pray that we will mimic the Lord, the apostles and the Thessalonian church in our desire to bring glory to our Savior who died to satisfy God's wrath and purchased the church with His own blood.