“Loved by God” 1 Thess. 1:1-10 May 21, 1995
In every letter to a church except that to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul’s first words are of thanks and praise to God for what God’s grace has wrought in the church to which Paul is writing. It is a rule he set down for himself and for us: “In everything give thanks…” But his thanksgiving for God’s work among the new Christians in Thessalonica is unusually warm and full. In verses 2-10 he gives his reasons: the earnest Christian life of the Thessalonians gave him assurance that they were truly chosen of God, which election had already been demonstrated by the noteworthy manner of their conversion to faith in Christ, which had greatly benefitted the cause of the Gospel because the story of it was being told everywhere, how the Thessalonians had forsaken idolatry to serve the living and true God and to await with a living hope the return of Jesus Christ.
Those verses are broken up into more sentences in the English translations than they are in Paul’s Greek. It is a typical passage from the great Apostle’s pen: his thought flowing rapidly on, building on itself, turning this way and that but always moving toward its goal.
Listen to R.D. Shaw on the literary style of the Apostle Paul.
There never was a writer whose style more clearly reflected the mood and purpose of the hour. It completely reveals the man, and its rapid changes are just the lights and shadows flitting over his face. It indicates the pulses of his feeling, shows him quivering with nervous excitement and anxiety, or flashing with indignation, jubilant with Christian triumph, or calm with the hidden depths of Christian peace. It is not polished or careful as to form, rather the reverse; it not seldom labors under the burden of thought, becomes involved, digresses, goes off at a word, draws clause out of clause in telescopic fashion as one new idea suggests another, until the main purpose is almost forgotten, and there is either a violent turn to recover it, or an abrupt conclusion and a new start altogether.
Another writer speaks of “the thought straining the language until it cracks in the process — a shipwreck of grammar.” We can think, for example of his 202 word sentence beginning at Ephesians 1:3; his “first” with never a “second” or “third” in Romans 3:2 or his successive digressions in Romans 5:12-19. Paul was a man of passion and enthusiasm and it spilled out into his writing in a way that gives his letters a special vitality and urgency still today, thousands of years later.
Paul had heard from Timothy that the church in Thessalonica was standing fast, even though it had suffered opposition and even though all the Christians there were but babes in Christ. The three great marks of true life in Christ: faith, hope, and love were present and producing a great harvest of powerful witness, fruitful work, and Christian graces.
Now, if the truth be told, this was most remarkable. After all, Paul and Silas had come into Thessalonica as complete strangers. They had for a short period — a matter of weeks only — preached a message that was, Paul would later admit, a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. And yet many had believed and not believed only. They had become so convinced that Paul was teaching them the truth about God’s coming wrath against sin, about Jesus Christ being the only Savior of sinners, and about the way of salvation by faith in Jesus that they not only believed this to be true but held fast to it when others began to persecute them for it.
How could this be explained? How could a large number of people be so quickly convinced of a message so strange and new and so utterly supernatural and miraculous — utterly foreign to anything they had ever seen with their eyes–, brought by complete strangers, that ran against the entire drift of their culture’s thought, and that, if they believed, immediately brought them all manner of grief?
Well, Paul says, the explanation lies in this. The message, when we brought it to you, came not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction. Now what does he mean by that? Paul might have meant that he also performed miracles — signs and wonders — in Thessalonica and that these caused the people there to believe. But “power” in the singular is not his way of referring to miracles and nothing else suggests that this was so. He seems rather to be speaking of the internal operation of the Holy Spirit, creating a deep conviction of the truth in their hearts and drawing them to Christ.
But that remarkable result of his preaching, their coming to believe against all odds, was proof and demonstration of something else.
The real explanation, Paul says, the real reason why his preaching in Thessalonica had such power over the hearts and minds of strangers is that these strangers were loved by God and had been chosen by God for salvation. God loved these individual folk, he had chosen them for salvation in Christ. That is why they believed and could not help believe. Almighty God was at work calling them to himself and to Christ his Son.
All men everywhere are wanting to be happy. There is that within every human being that cries out for fulfillment of life, for the satisfaction of the great longings of the soul, for peace, hope, love, and joy.
As Pascal observed centuries ago, so it remains today:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views [i.e. one thinks going to way will benefit them, the other thinks it will not]. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Now Jesus knew that and appealed to that fact. His message was that he knew and he alone how to make men happy. His followers have made the same argument and the same claim. Augustine wrote to some Christians in his day: “If I were to ask you why you have believed in Christ, why you have become Christians, every man will truly answer, ‘For the sake of happiness.'” [In Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics, p. 18.]
Now, the fact of the matter is, people reject the Gospel for the same reason. They do not think it leads to happiness. Perhaps they don’t think its true and so don’t believe that it can deliver what it offers. Or, they are impressed by how much it demands, how hard it is on their pride, what effort it requires on behalf of holiness of heart and life.
It was of this objection that Chesterton was speaking when he wrote that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Or the hymn writer who represents the unbeliever saying to the Christian: “Always fast and vigil; always watch and prayer?” What a life. That doesn’t sound like happiness to me; it sounds much more like drudgery of the worst and most tiresome kind.
And so it was in Thessalonica and so it has been ever since. Some of the people who heard Paul recognized in the most direct and immediate way that what Paul was saying to them — unusual, unheard of, utterly unlike the philosophies of their day though it was — was in fact the truth, the truest truth. They were as sure of it as they would have been had God himself come down from heaven and spoken it to them himself. In fact, that is exactly what they really believed had happened (as Paul will say in 2:13). Others recognized nothing of the kind and were either mildly but only theoretically interested in or utterly indifferent or positively hostile to the message Paul brought.
And the difference Paul says, as he says many times elsewhere in his letters, did not lie first in the people themselves, but in God. He had people in Thessalonica, people he had long since loved and long since chosen to save. They and they only believed the Gospel and received it and obeyed it.
Some of you have heard the old southern aphorism: When you find a turtle on top of a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself. Well, so it is with the salvation of sinners. When folk like these folk, who have every reason not to believe in Christ, trust him with their very lives, you know it is not because they were smarter than others — very clever folk rejected Paul’s message root and branch — or better than others — Paul will be clear about how sinful was the past of many of his converts. No, the explanation lies in the fact that God had chosen them for salvation and what the Almighty wishes to achieve, he achieves. “The Lord made them willing in the day of his power!”
Now Paul obviously thinks this is a wonderful truth. He is aware that it is a controversial truth — he deals with that controversy elsewhere, especially in Romans 9 –. And he was fully aware that others — especially those who had no knowledge of that divine love and election would abominate this truth of election.
Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, whose poem “Holy Willie’s Prayer” is a bitterly sarcastic parody of the doctrine of divine election, would have surprised the Apostle Paul not at all.
O Thou that in the Heavens does dwell,
Wha [Who], as it pleases best Thyself,
Sends ane [one] to Heaven and ten to Hell
A’ [All] for Thy glory,
And no [not] for onie [any] good or ill
They’ve done before Thee!
It is the travesty of understanding that all sinners bring to this subject. Unable and unwilling to acknowledge their own deep guilt and love of sin and hatred of God, their own unconquerable disinterest in the gospel of Christ; unable and unwilling to admit God’s holiness and justice such that no human being deserves any good at God’s hand and no one could ever be saved except by divine grace; unable and unwilling to admit that if judged by God no sinner will get anything else but what he has deserved and chosen for himself and, if saved, it is God’s free gift and utterly beyond any complaint on a sinner’s part — he or she complains that God did not extend to him or to her what he had no obligation to extend to anyone. They who never wanted God’s love, and never will, take offense that he loved others.
That is the controversy. But Paul is speaking to Christians here and for them he considers it something for them to know and ponder that all that has come to them, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of everlasting life, the fresh new life they have to live now in this world — all of that is God’s gift to them. It came to them because, for reasons no one will ever understand, he loved them and chose them to share in his salvation and belong to his family. This is not so difficult for them to believe, after all. They now see themselves and what they were as they did not see themselves before. They know now without a doubt that they would never have believed in Christ Jesus had God not sent his Spirit to illuminate their minds and renew their wills. They would never have come to Christ is God had not drawn them. They would never have believed, if God had not, by name, appointed them to eternal life. And they knew, as their unbelieving friends would never bring themselves to admit, that as mere creatures and as sinful creatures, profoundly and constitutionally sinful, they were in no position whatever to pass judgment on the ways of an all-holy God. They could not begin to understand the Almighty’s purposes and the only appropriate posture for them was on their knees before God with their hands over their mouths. “The Lord reigneth; let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
But their own experience had convinced them, as their unbelieving friends in Thessalonica still did understand that, as Pascal put it, “To make a man a saint, grace [i.e. God’s free gift of salvation] is absolutely necessary; and whoever doubts this does not know what a saint is, nor what a man is.”
Had they had the poems and hymns of William Cowper in their day, they would have sung with full understanding and complete conviction his verse which represents God speaking of the salvation of his chosen ones:
From the first breath of life divine,
Down to the last expiring hour,
The gracious work shall all be mine,
Begun and ended in my power.”
And they would have well understood what Richard Baxter would later write: “Let deserved be written on the door of hell, but on the door of heaven and life, The Free Gift.”
All through the centuries there have been added to the church multitudes of people who once thought themselves the captains of their own fate, but who came clearly to see that their lives were all along in God’s hands, and that they have him and him alone, his love, his choice, his sending his Son, and then his sending his Spirit to them, to thank for their coming to Christ and to salvation and eternal life.
And for those, deep and difficult as this truth no doubt is, and profoundly mysterious, they have rejoiced to think, and loved to think, that God loved them, and chose them to receive, and to understand, and to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord and his sovereign grace is the explanation of everything. So said Paul and so have the saints said ever since. So have the great doctors of the church all said — even those who began thinking differently.
Now no unbeliever likes to hear this and Paul didn’t ordinarily preach it to them. No proud rebel against God likes to be told that he is utterly dependent upon the good pleasure of God for the salvation of his soul. But in the family, to know that God has loved us, by name, and chosen us, and saved us — God, the Lord Almighty has done it — this is the most exhilarating, confidence building, humbling, love and gratitude producing fact in all the world — and no conviction in all of human history has ever produced more true humility and purity and bravery and goodness and love in human beings than this: we love him because he first loved us!
This past week I watched the videotaped recording of a debate at Stanford University between Philip Johnson, the UCal Berkeley law professor and William Provine the Cornell Biology professor on the subject of evolution. It was a perfect illustration of what happens and has always happened among men face to face with the truth of God.
One looks at nature and sees the hand of God; the other cannot see it at all. One is sure that evolution did not happen and the evidence has proved the point. The other is sure it must have happened, even if the evidence is wanting in many respects.
The one man is willing to deny everything that matters to human beings in order to deny God. It was remarkable to hear Prof. Provine tell the large audience that there is no God; no life after death — only the dissolution of the material of the body –; no soul; no ultimate basis for right and wrong; and no free will. Man is his biology, nothing more, nothing less. [Now, I should say that he completely failed to stay true to his viewpoint — complaining from time to time of certain evils in the society that, by his philosophy, are not evils at all but merely competing biologies, there is after all no free will and no right and wrong — this is the problem with all such philosophies — no human being can live with them.]
Prof. Provine said he started out as a supernaturalist and came later to evolution and naturalism [the view that there is nothing but nature; no God] because the evidence persuaded him. Prof. Johnson said he was once an agnostic but became a Christian because the evidence overwhelmed him.
Both brilliant men. Both looking at the same world and the same biological data. Both utterly untroubled and unmoved by the arguments of the other [though, I have no hesitation in claiming that Prof. Provine did not and could not make his case; it was a most interesting exercise in begging the question]. What is the real difference? God has opened one man’s eyes and not the other. That is the difference; that is always the difference; that shall always be the difference.
But Prof. Provine’s inconsistency — his inability to live with his own philosophy, even for the hour it took to have the debate, tells us this. Men and women are made in the image of God and nothing will ever satisfy them but God, nothing ever make them truly happy but God. “Something deep in man screams when he is told that he is only a higher animal.” No mere animal cares that he is such. But man does. No human life can come near its true satisfaction and significance and fulfillment that is not lived in God and for God and by the love of God. And so, to be loved by God, and chosen by God for salvation in Jesus Christ, is the only truly great thing that can ever be said about any human being. And if you know it to be true about yourself, — whatever else may be true of you –you should be the happiest person in all the world.