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1 Thessalonians

The Church by Example

1st Thessalonians 1

Writing to an exemplary church in Macedonia, Paul in these letters outlines for us much of the doctrine concerning the second coming of the Lord. In doing so, he shows us the kind of church against which Satan makes a sophisticated attack. We shall see both the church and her hope in these two letters.

Character of the church

Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you;

(1Th 1:1-4 NASB)

The church’s relationship to God

The first thing to note is the preposition: “in.” Paul here lays emphasis upon the fact that the true church is in God the Father and Jesus Christ. Like most of the early churches, the Thessalonian church suffered persecution, both from the Jews and the Roman Empire. It is easy, then, to picture them hiding under the wings of God. He is our comfort; he is our shelter. A church in pride will try to be her own rock against the storms; the church in humility builds upon the solid Rock of Ages. It is interesting to note that the church then was much more greatly persecuted than in our day, yet the church today is much more vigorous in defending herself. Could it be that we have chosen the wrong rock?

You will note that this church, hiding herself in the Lord, is beloved by God. It seems a curious thought to non-Christians, but Christians know that God wants us to depend upon him, not upon ourselves. We must do what we can do – but always trusting God for the results. He loves us, and never more than when we are under his wings.

We have preached self-reliance so long to ourselves that we have forgotten the sweetness of God’s sovereign choice. He has chosen us, in Christ, to become his children. Christ our brother, God our father – he has chosen us into the family of God. We are his because he wants us to be.

Outward signs of the church

Have you ever moved to a new city? Then you know that your first weeks are spent finding things: where’s the post office, which market has the best prices, etc. If you are wise, one such search will be for your new church home. Some will select this by the sign on the door; others will listen for the eloquence of the preacher; others will regard the size as being most important. May I suggest that there are surer signs?

  • First, you should look for the work of faith. The phrase seems self-contradictory, but it is not. Faith shows itself in works. Look for those churches who pray consistently, for example. Look for those things the world calls useless, which God deems precious.
  • Next you should see the labor of love. Do they feed the hungry? Visit the sick and in prison? When they do, is it done cheerfully? Indeed, are they forgiving?
  • Finally, is their hope really in Christ? Do they look forward to our Lord’s imminent return? Or do they completely ignore prophecy?
Praying for the church

Now that you have found such a church, you must support and sustain it – especially in prayer. Paul shows us here his prayers for the church in Thessalonica:

  • He begins with thanksgiving. Such a church is precious to God, and a blessing to his saints. Thank him for your church.
  • He asks for grace. The grace of God is intrinsically linked to his forgiveness. A church living in God’s grace is not only forgiven, but forgiving. Such a church reaches out to those who are the fallen of our world, such as the criminals, those addicted to drugs and those whose lifestyles have born the pain of sin.
  • He asks for peace. Though many think the church grows fastest under persecution, the process of making disciples is best done in a time of peace – for in that time the faithful may reach deeply into God’s word.

The Power of Example

for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

(1Th 1:5-7 NASB)

The coming of the Good News

The preaching and teaching of the Gospel (the word means “good news”) is done rather gently in our place and time. If you want to be a nationally known preacher, writer or teacher, your message should be as inoffensive as possible. No one goes to hell; they have a “Christ-less eternity.” The teaching is about how God can meet your needs in your daily life; the Cross is now in the background. Compare this method with Paul’s description of how the Thessalonians heard the Good News:

  • The Good News came in power. In the original, it’s the word from which we get our word, “dynamite.” Paul is speaking not just of the miraculous, but of the total change in life which comes over those who truly believe.
  • The Good News came in with the Holy Spirit. Those who received the Holy Spirit knew it; those who were around them found out about it quickly enough. The whole basis of life had changed.
  • The Good News came with full conviction. It is the function of the Spirit to convince the world of sin and judgment – and when you know you’re a sinner, the Good News is very good indeed.
Successive Imitation

Ask your children, they’ll tell you: nothing is so instructive and convincing as your example. We may note how this works:

  • The point clearly begins with the character of the Apostles. Paul makes it clear that the imitation started because he and his companions proved themselves to be what they claimed to be. This was a town where Paul worked nights as a tent maker to support himself for the day’s preaching. You cannot long fool anyone.
  • The result was first this: the Thessalonians began by imitating the Paul they could see. Effective teaching always includes the example. (Even if your life has been one of sin, you can always use yourself as a bad example.)
  • Because Paul was imitating his Lord, the Thessalonians soon figured it out: their ultimate example was Jesus, God in the flesh. By imitating the Paul they had seen, they began to imitate the Jesus they had not.
An example to others

Nothing so pleases a teacher of the Scripture as to see that his students are imitating the Lord Jesus Christ – to the point of being an example to others. See how thoroughly they did this:

  • They did it first to those nearby – in the same city, in the same province. But later the word spread, as many of these people moved to other cities. The process repeats itself to this day.
  • Note, please, that this happened during tribulation – persecution, if you will. It is politically incorrect to be a Christian today. Many companies will not allow a known Christian on their payroll. It is in time of persecution that the character of the example is best seen.
  • A curious result is shown: joy. The church, in tribulation, shelters under the wings of God – and God, through the Holy Spirit, gives them joy. Joy? Indeed, the sweet joy of knowing that the times are tough – but as trials abound, so does grace. The Spirit is our comforter, and that brings joy.

Paul records for us just how this worked for the Thessalonians:

Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God.

(2Co 8:1-5 NASB)

(Thessalonica was the capital city of Macedonia.)

Results

For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.

(1Th 1:8-10 NASB)

Sounded forth

One solid measure of a church is its program of evangelism. See here the character such evangelism should have:

  • The first thing is this: it must “sound forth.” The word in the original carries a meaning of something loud and strong – sufficient that you can hear it echoing back. Our evangelism should echo back, not get lost in the traffic noise.
  • First, it goes out locally. Unless you’re on an island without a paddle, there are those around who need to hear the word. This is the task of every Christian.
  • But as a church together, we also have the responsibility to send the word to all the world. Each church, like this one, should send out missionaries at long range. We don’t know if they sent people like Paul, or simply used those who were going that way – both should be done.
Ourselves as examples

Read between the lines with me. Paul tells them that the churches they started have themselves reported on the reception the Thessalonians gave Paul. This tells us something: the Thessalonians testified about themselves as a part of their evangelism.

  • They told the story of their own conversion – of how Paul had brought the Gospel to them. Thus they became witnesses for Christ.
  • They were not ashamed to tell of their own sins – in this instance, idol worship. The sinner is sent to the sinner; from the cattle boats you came, to the cattle boats you will return.
  • By their example they showed that they had turned from sin to the service of God. It is an example for us today.
Eyes on the prize

At the core of the evangelist’s heart is the sure knowledge of Christ. If you want to hit the target, you will need something to aim at. The Thessalonians were set upon hitting the target:

  • They had seized the core of the message: the truth of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no substitute for this; no amount of chatter and sweet talk will replace the gory truth of the Cross. How firm a foundation!
  • They looked ahead – to the target. Christ will some day return to claim his own – and to judge the living and the dead. When that blessed day comes, these Christians will be among those who receive the “Well done” of God. Know what you’re aiming at!
  • While we await his return, we should not be idle. Patience is not idleness; patience is an active word. When he returns, he should find us doing what we are supposed to be doing.

I cannot forbear to add this: on that great day, the Thessalonians will arise from their graves. They will testify to the horrible tribulations they had – far worse than anything we have seen. They will show that they reached out with the Gospel to those around, both near and far. Their works will show them to be true Christians. Look around you and ask: will we be able to say the same?

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