SCRIPTURE ANNOUNCEMENT & INTRODUCTION
The Scripture reading is First Thessalonians chapter one. This is the first in a series of six evening sermons on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which will probably take us to the end of chapter three or beginning of chapter four. I expect that with a few additional sermons this summer we will be able to finish the book.
First Thessalonians is a fascinating book for a number of reasons—it speaks to issues of truth, of morality, of faith, of the Christian life, and the Lord’s second coming. But it holds a special interest for me and for us because it gives us a snapshot of a newly planted church, and some of the issues that face a young church.
Before we read the text, let me give you some background on the occasion of this letter. Thessalonica was an important city, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. Paul, Silas and Timothy had taken the gospel to this city in about AD 49 or 50. We don’t know exactly how long they stayed there – it was at least three weeks because that is how many weeks they preached in the synagogue, but it was probably after a period of about two or three months that they faced increasing hostility from both the Jewish community and the local authorities. The most serious charge was that Paul was preaching a subversive message, that he was a threat to the emperor.
You find the story told in Acts 17, where it says this: The Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble [apparently a bunch of idle men standing around waiting for a chance to cause trouble] they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason [he’s the poor fellow who is hosting Paul], seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.
Part of the reason they were so disturbed is because in the year or two leading up to this there had been trouble brewing in the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Some Jewish zealots, calling themselves “freedom fighters,” were stirring up a kind of militant messianic movement. In the city of Rome it had caused such rioting and public dissension that the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from the city. Roman emperors and their emissaries were not known for nuance, and so when they heard Paul talking about King Jesus, they may have lumped him in with these militaristic zealots.
So it is not surprising that when these charges are swirling about that the believers urge him to make a hasty departure. Paul leaves under cover of darkness, goes to the next town, Berea, then on to Athens and while he is in Athens, he sends Timothy back to check on the church in Thessalonica. How are they doing? Has the gospel taken root in their lives?
This letter we have in our hands is Paul’s reaction to the report Timothy gave him. It was a mostly happy report. Of course, there was a smear campaign being waged against Paul. His opponents were saying to the new Christians, “You see? Paul was just one more smooth-talking salesman; he was just after your money, and when suffering came, he bailed and left you to suffer the consequences!” That opposition had to be addressed, and there were a few issues of morality to be addressed in the lives of the new Christians, but for the most part it was a great report, a cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving.
1 Thessalonians chapter one, verses 1-10…
I’m fascinated by how strongly Paul expresses his confidence that here in Thessalonica was a genuine work of God. He says in verse four – we know that you are chosen by God. That’s a strong statement, so I think it serves as a good place to ask the question, “What are the unmistakable signs of a genuine work of God?” How can we know that God is truly at work in a person’s life or in the life of a local church?
In the evangelical world there are a number of things that people point to as evidence of God being at work – often it has to do with money, and massive congregations, and large buildings, and best-selling books. Paul doesn’t mention anything like that. What does he point to? How does he know that they were the real deal?
He links it in verse five to the fact that the gospel had come not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. The gospel is a message – it involves words, propositions about Jesus and what he has done – but it is more than words. Paul says that when the gospel came to the Thessalonians it came not only in words, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction. Something happened in them, and to them. A power was unleashed. They believed the gospel with full conviction.
And flowing out of that wholehearted embrace of the gospel, Paul mentions a number of things. He had spoken in verse three of their faith, hope, and love. He also mentions in verse six their commitment to lead exemplary lives, following Paul’s example and the Lord’s example. God’s hand was evident because people in Macedonia and Achaia were taking notice of the changed lives of the Thessalonians. The word was spreading about them.
In all of these things that Paul points to as evidence of the genuineness of their faith, can we identify a core principle? If we wanted to boil it down to one thing that had happened to the Thessalonians, can we put our finger on that one driving factor? I think we can.
In verses 9 and 10, we have a summary of the report that was spreading about the Thessalonians… READ vv.9-10
This is probably the clearest picture we have about the way the gospel initially hit home for people coming out of a pagan background, out of idols into the worship and service of the true God. In the pagan world, idols were part of the fabric of society. As N.T. Wright explains,
The gods of Greek and Roman paganism were everywhere. If you were going to plant a tree, you would pray to the relevant god. If you were going on a business trip, a quick visit to the appropriate shrine was in order. If you or your son or daughter was getting married, serious and costly worship of the relevant deity was expected. At every turn in the road the gods were there: unpredictable, possibly malevolent, sometimes at war among themselves, so that you could never do too much in the way of placating them, making sure you’d got them on your side. (Paul for Everyone series)
It was thus a striking proof of the power of the gospel amongst the Thessalonians that they would be willing to abandon all of their idols, to all of a sudden change their view of what powers were at work in the world, and what was real and true. The gospel had this effect on them. It was an amazing transformation.
Why would they be willing to forsake their idols? Why would they be willing to completely overturn that system, and place their hopes somewhere entirely different from what they had always known?
I think the answer is simple. As God’s Spirit opened their hearts to the gospel message, they suddenly realized that the idols did not, and could not, offer a real solution to their greatest problem. They discovered that their greatest problem was the wrath of a holy God, and how they might be delivered from that wrath.
This was a frequent theme in Paul’s preaching in the pagan world. On this same missionary journey, he went to Athens, and we have it recorded in the well known passage in Acts 17, Paul among the philosophers in the Areopagus. As he reasoned daily with them, he said things like this:
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
This is every person’s greatest problem. A day of reckoning is coming. Paul doesn’t mince words about this. He says in 2 Thessalonians 1 that Jesus will be revealed…
…from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might….
This is the most pressing problem a person will ever face. It is the one great question above all others that demands a solution. And what help will your idols be on that day? Think of all the things we chase after, the things that we adore and worship? Money, reputation, power, material possessions, accolades at work, beauty, fitness – what will any of those things do for you on the day when God judges the secrets of your heart by Christ Jesus? Nothing. They will be seen as lifeless idols, powerless to save us from the fury of God’s perfect justice.
And you can’t say, “Well, that’s the end of history, a long ways off.” Hebrews 9 says it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. In other words, when it comes finding a way of escape from the wrath of God, whatever solution you invest your hopes in now, in this brief life – that is the solution that will deliver you, or not deliver you – on the last day. The choice is made now that will dictate where you stand on that day.
About a half-mile from my house is a large cemetery. It happens to be the cemetery where Jimi Hendrix is buried. I have been taking morning walks in this cemetery, while listening to God’s Word on my iPod. It has been interesting to see what Scriptures come up as I enter into the cemetery each time. One day it was Romans 8, how not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Yesterday as I walked and read the names on the markers, these words came through my headphones, from Psalm 49:
No man can redeem the life of another
or give to God a ransom for him
the ransom for a life is costly,
no payment is ever enough
that he should live on forever
and not see decay.
For all can see that wise men die;
the foolish and the senseless alike perish
and leave their wealth to others.
Their tombs will remain their house forever,
their dwellings for endless generations,
though they had named lands after themselves.
As you can imagine, hearing passages like that while walking past name after name, row upon row, in a vast cemetery – it has a sobering effect. It certainly puts right in front of your face the brevity of life, the urgency of the gospel, the reality of heaven and hell, and the fact that death, our greatest enemy, comes to every single person, rich or poor, celebrity or not, young and old alike.
All the more reason to be absolutely sure about where you stand relative to that final day, the day when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. I do pray that every single person here tonight knows the real solution to the problem of divine wrath. It is found here in verse 10 – Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
In the book Knowing God, J.I. Packer says this:
If we know ourselves at all, we know we are not fit to face God on judgment day. What then are we to do? The New Testament answer is this: Call on the coming judge to be your present Savior. As Judge, he is the law, but as Savior he is the gospel. Run from him now, and you will meet him as Judge then – and without hope. Seek him now, and you will find him, and you will then discover that you are looking forward to that future meeting with joy, knowing that there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, of course I know that, and I do have that confidence in Christ, so how is this passage relevant to me?” I can sympathize with that question. After all, I didn’t come from a pagan background. Probably for most of you, the situation of the Thessalonians coming out of paganism doesn’t describe your background either. I did not receive the word in much affliction as they did. I received the word in relative comfort, from believing parents who loved me and encouraged me from day one to embrace the gospel.
What is the value of this text for someone who grew up in the church? As Paul might tell us, much in every way! I’ll just mention quickly three things.
First, it is always good to remember the absolutely desperate situation we were all facing left to ourselves, and to be stirred up with gratitude. What kind of love is this, that God would send his beloved Son to take our punishment? We deserved wrath, and got mercy!
Second, it is always good to remember God’s holy hatred for sin, and how that ought to inform our own fight against sin. Are you struggling against a besetting sin? One of the weapons in your arsenal is a keen sense of the intense hatred God has for sin, his fury against sin and his commitment to wipe it out. That can help to fuel your own hatred for it.
Third, it reminds us that turning to Christ means turning away from idols. Even as Christians we are prone to take created things and elevate them, give them an inordinate place. John Calvin said that the human heart is an idol factory. We are mass-producing idols every day! We crank them out, one after another out of the assembly line in our heart – we put things up in the place of worship, and then we give our hearts to those things, we adore those things, we cling to them, we make sacrifices for them. And in so doing, we are engaged in a direct attack on God Himself. Do you see how much deeper our sin problem is than we typically think it is? When we elevate things to the place that only God deserves, we are telling God to step down from His throne. We must turn away from idols.
To go back to our original question – how can we identify a true work of God? You will know that the gospel has come with power and with full conviction when a person sees his great need to be delivered from the wrath of God, and that the Son of God has stepped in to be that deliverer. That changes everything. That opens the door to faith, hope, and love. It opens the door to a joyful reception of the Word of God even in the midst of suffering. It opens the door to an exemplary life, to victory over sin, to spiritual power. It all starts with an awareness of the wrath of God, and the provision of a Savior.
My prayer is that if there is anyone here who has not yet come to grips with the wrath of God, that you would not go to sleep tonight without settling that question and knowing where you stand. Take refuge in the Lord Jesus Christ, looking to him as your peace and your hope. For those who already know Christ, that your heart would be filled with praise – what a great salvation we have! And that you would fight your sin, hate it the way God hates it, and that you would turn from idols. Turn from false saviors with their false promises, and go back again and again to Jesus. Have the mindset of William Cowper (“Cooper”) who wrote the hymn “O For a Closer Walk with Thee,” in which he says this:
The dearest idol I have known
Whate’er that idol be
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.