Imagine with me that God has called you to spread his word throughout the empire.. In fulfilling God’s call, you visit many different cities, even starting new churches in these cities. Imagine after being in a new city for three weeks, the local government starts trouble for you. In a matter of time, your, effectively kicked out of the city. You go to another city, and somehow the officials of the city you were first kicked out of, manage to get you kicked out of that city as well. This leaves two newly started church without a pastor.
This happened to Paul and Silas as they followed God’s call to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. The first church that I’m talking about is Thessalonica. Paul and Silas had started’ preaching in the synagogue about the Good News of Jesus the Messiah. This was a great place because they could use the foundation of the Old Testament (which many Jews who were attending would understand). In the process many Jews and even “God-fearing” Gentiles came to know Jesus Christ.
It’s not surprising that Paul and Silas’ quick success made the synagogue leadership jealous, so they began to stir up trouble for the two evangelists. As a result, Paul and Silas had to leave their new church plant and move on.
For the next few weeks we are going to take a look at the pastoral letter of Paul to the church at Thessalonica. This letter was written to a fledgling congregation who lost their pastor due to no fault of either party. As we take a look at the book of 1 Thessalonians, we want to take a look at Paul and his pastor’s heart for the church located there.
There is little disagreement on who wrote this letter. Paul’s known characteristics are apparent in this letter and few have ever disputed Paul’s authorship. It is usually agreed upon that this letter was written about AD 51. This is probably one of Paul’s earliest letters.
The city of Thessalonica was a seaport city and was an important communication and trade center. The population was around 200,000 and was the largest city in Macedonia and was the capital of the province. By looking at the book of Acts, we can determine that the church was largely Gentile in membership.
So what is the theme of 1 Thessalonians? There are various subjects covered in the letter, but the primary subject is (watch out, here comes one of those $5 words) eschatology (the doctrine of last things.) Each chapter of this book ends with a reference to the second coming or Christ or his second advent. We will take a deeper look at that when we get to chapter 4. 1st and 2nd Thessalonians together are considered to be the eschatological letters of Paul (or Paul’s letters of the doctrine of the end things.)
This morning we want to deal with the introduction and Paul’s opening prayer to the church in Thessalonica.
1 Paul, Silas, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace to you.
2We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.
3We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia–your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us.
They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
This letter begins in the typical fashion of letters written in this time period. First, we see who the letter is from; Paul, Silas, and Timothy. Next, we see who it is written to and that is the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a distinguishing mark. It makes them different from all other assemblies that might be gathering in Thessalonica. It also tells us their true identity is found in Jesus Christ. Finally, the salutation contains a greeting; “Grace and peace to you.” This greeting combines the source of the blessing, grace – and that is God’s undeserved favor – with the result of that blessing and that is peace. This is more than an absence of conflict but wholeness.
Most of Paul’s letters start with a prayer of thanksgiving for those he is writing to and this letter is no exception. Paul wants the believers to know that he cares about them. Paul is often thought of as a pastor, missionary, church planter, and evangelist, but usually not thought of as a prayer warrior, but as we look at this passage we see that he is a strong and constant intercessor. The believers at Thessalonica are constantly on his mind. As we take a look at what Paul thanks God for in the lives of the believers here are three things; faith, love, and hope. These should be virtues that each and every believer should have. Why? They are God’s good gifts to us and they are habits of the heart that we should exercise.
Let’s take a few moments to break this down. 1) Faith works. Most of us know that faith is much more than intellectual, but neither is it blind. God wants us to use our intellect so that we can know him more. Faith is a total commitment to Christ which leads to action. Remember what James says, faith without works is dead. If we have faith in Christ but do nothing about it, we should be cut off to use Jesus’ illustration in John 15. 2) Love labors. The word labor is a strong one. Think of a woman who is giving birth. We call it labor because it is. It is hard work. I’ve never given birth and from what I’ve experienced (it’s nothing compared to the woman’s part) I never want to. The word labor implies painful, persistent effort. That describes a woman giving birth. I like what Warren Woolsey says, “So if faith works; love is prepared even to toil; it never wearies of serving those who are loved.” I like that. Paul is a great example of a pastor. We never catch Paul acting like Eyeore of Winnie the Pooh fame. Paul never says, “Oh poor me, I always get the worst of it.” Paul is actually energized by the work that he has to do for the ones he loves. Earlier this week, I was struggling to get started. Guess what helped me. Reading this passage and working on the sermon that you are hearing now. You are loved by God and you are loved by your pastor. As I started writing the words, I found new energy that I didn’t have before. That persistent labor of love is sustained by hope. So many times we think of hope as simply being optimism about the future. Hope is so much more than that. It has a solid foundation of confidence in God, based on what He has done through us in Christ.
It is this faith, love, and hope that inspired the believers in Thessalonica to persevere even in the midst of persecution. Look at verse 6, “You became imitators of us, and of the Lord; in spite of sever suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” We often forget that living the Christian life in early Roman Empire was a matter of life and death. Christianity survived in the midst of great persecution. What’s even more amazing is that they were able to have joy in the middle of the persecution. They were able to receive God’s word with joy in spite of their suffering. Tribulation was the normal Christian experience. Remember Jesus’ words in the Upper Room? “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
As I was reading the commentary for this passage, I came across this. “We have no detailed knowledge of what hardships the Thessalonians experienced, but certainly the forces that succeeded in getting rid of the missionary team would next focus on the local believers, who were probably in a vulnerable position. The only explanation for their continued joy, Paul affirms, is that this is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It may be legitimate to raise the question, if tribulation is the context for normal Christian living, is it only a matter of time until we are back to ‘normality’? Or is our Christianity so diluted that it no longer threatens the existing state of affairs? Are we no longer dangerous?” Ouch! That hurts. Think about that for a moment. It’s interesting that throughout the course of Christian history, persecution has been the norm. During the 20th century, more Christians died for their faith than in the previous 19 centuries. It’s interesting that more and more people perceive Christianity as a threat. Just this week I read an article about how a movie with no sex, violence, or foul language received a PG rating. “Why?” you ask, because it mentions Christianity in a positive light. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Persecution is coming. I wish it weren’t. We need to pray for God’s grace to be overcomers, just as Jesus promised.
But what about the persecution, so what? How we behave when undergoing stress tells us a great deal about our character. Verse 7 says, “. . . so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia…” By being imitators of God, the word of the Good News spread. Remember that Thessalonica was a seaport and commercial center. It was at the beginning of the road to the Danube. Because of the witness of the Thessalonian believers, the word spread. It didn’t just spread to the region of Macedonia but became known everywhere. This is a great witness. This is a great model of what we should be. There witness is so strong that Paul and the missionary team don’t even have to elaborate on it. Those who have encountered the Thessalonian church tell of the great things God is doing there. What was happening? This little church plant that was suffering persecution had turned away from idols to serve the true and living God. What kind of idols do you have in your life this morning that you need to turn away from; work, sport, television, lust, food, drugs, alcohol, sex, or selfish ambition, money, power or fame? These all take away from the allegiance that we should have to God and God alone. These Christians not only turned, but also turned to serve God. What does serve mean? It means to perform the duties of a slave, serve, and obey. A great transformation happened in the life of these believers and everyone knew it. They had a fantastic witness.
One of the things about receiving Christ is that we are bought with a price. Paul writes about the work Christ does in us and tells us, “You are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you an heir.” So we have a wonderful inheritance waiting for us in heaven, but we can also experience that here and now, even in the midst of persecution. That is what gave the believers hope. That is why they “wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from God’s wrath.” There is coming a day when Jesus will come to take those who have placed their faith in him to heaven where we will have the inheritance of a lifetime. It will be ours for all eternity.
This morning I have two challenges:
Have you placed your faith in the living and true God? If not today could be your spiritual birthday. The inheritance is only available to those who have placed their faith and trust in Jesus. Do you want to do that today?
If you are a believer here, does your life reflect the Lord you serve? Have you completely turned away from the idols that can entangle you? This morning can be a new starting point for you as well. So that people can see your witness. It’s amazing that the Thessalonian believers didn’t go around telling people what God had done. The people knew simply by observing. Is your witness that strong? Is your faith completely grounded in Christ that you could face severe persecution as the Thessalonian believers did?
The altar is open for anyone this morning. Do you hear God calling you this morning? Are you willing to obey?