Expo Preaching
1 Thess - While We Wait
The Church that receives the Gospel has a responsibility to pass it on. The Church that wants to pass on the gospel must first embody it.

Today we start a new series, on Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Interesting fact:  It’s probably the first letter Paul wrote and it appears to have been written while Paul was in Corinth around 50-52AD. In Acts 17 Luke records Paul’s visit to Thessalonica where he taught for 3 days in the synagogue and a number of people were converted. But then the Jewish leaders became jealous and incited a riot so that Paul, Timothy and Silas had to leave town in a hurry. They then went to Beroea where a similar thing happened and Paul again had to go, but this time he left Silas and Timothy behind. 

So Paul is now in Corinth where Silas and Timothy have finally caught up with him, bringing encouraging news from the Macedonian churches along with some financial support that they’d sent. And it seems that this letter is written in response to what they report to him. 

As I said, Thessalonica was a difficult place to be a Christian. Clearly the opposition from the Jews continued after he left. So Paul spends some time in this and his subsequent letter to them, encouraging the Christians there to persevere; to hold on to their faith as they await the return of Jesus Christ.

But this isn’t just an interesting bit of history. It’s also an opportunity for us to think about the relationship between the gospel and a growing church. It’s an opportunity for us to see how we as a Church can be shaped by the gospel and how we can spread the good news as we seek to live a life that’s worthy of the gospel.

So today, let’s see how Paul addresses this young church, how he encourages them and what he gives thanks for.

 He begins with the customary formula for letters of the time. First he names the sender, then the person to whom he’s writing, then he greets them, then gives thanks for them. In this case the letter comes from Paul, Silvanus, or Silas, and Timothy. This is a letter of encouragement from the whole mission team. Paul doesn’t differentiate himself from the other 2 by calling himself an apostle, as he does in 1 Corinthians and in Galatians for example. His authority isn’t at issue here. Rather it’s the encouragement of the whole team that matters. It may even be that Silas and Timothy have helped to compose the letter.

What does matter though is the way he addresses the Thessalonians, because here we discover some important things about the Church of God.

1 The Church is a community that lives in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

He addresses the letter: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Notice how he emphasises their relationship to God and Jesus Christ. They’re “In God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. That is, their life is based in the life of God. It’s like that vine metaphor we saw in John 15 where Jesus talked about us being part of the vine, grafted in to the life of Jesus.

So as he thinks about the difficulties they face, the opposition they’re encountering from the enemies of the gospel, he wants to remind them of the source of their life. He wants to remind them that they need to remain firmly in God and Jesus Christ, rooted firmly in the one who gives and sustains their life. Why? Because if they lose that firm foundation, that strong connection to God and to his son Jesus Christ they’ll lose the source of their strength: and that’s the only thing that will give them the power to stand against the opposition of the evil one. And that’s equally true for us.

But at the same time they and we need to be reminded that our being in God makes us responsible for the way we live. In particular it makes us responsible for the way we demonstrate the life of God to those around us.

2. Central to the life of the Church are Faith, Love and Hope

Paul begins his encouragement of the Thessalonians by telling them how he and Silas and Timothy pray for them regularly, always thanking God for them, particularly for their faith, hope and love. I’m sure you’ve all heard that trio of characteristics of the Christian listed together many times before. But you may not have thought of them in this sense. Each one of them is an outward focussed characteristic, focussed on an aspect of our Christian walk.  

Faith is directed towards God and results in good works. Because we know that God has saved us, has given us life, has empowered us for his service, we set our minds to serving him wherever we are. In Ephesians 2 Paul talks about our salvation coming by grace through faith and he finishes by reminding us that we’ve been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in. James tells us that the inevitable result of faith is good works. In fact if good works don’t result from our faith he concludes that our faith must be dead.

But there’s more to be said about those good works. He talks about their labour prompted by love. Doing God’s work can sometimes be hard. Have you noticed that? I think that’s why he describes it as labour. I’m sure you’ve all been in the situation where you’re given a task to do that’s hard work. What I find in that situation is that the work is much harder to sustain if I’m working for someone or some organisation that I don’t like. If I hate my boss, I’ll probably hate my work. On the other hand, if I love my boss my work will feel that much easier. I used to ask couples who came to me to be married whether they were absolutely sure that’s what they wanted to do. I used to warn them that being married was hard work. Strangely though, none of them ever changed their minds? Not because they didn’t believe me but because hard work isn’t a barrier when you’re in love. So when we do good works out of love, in response to the love shown to us in Jesus Christ, the labour of them is easier to manage.

So we have works of faith and labours of love. One rests on the past, on God’s nature, what God has done already, and the other works in the present, arising from the love engendered in our hearts by the Holy Spirit within us and directed to those to whom we’re ministering.

Thirdly hope sustains us as we look to the future. The assurance of what God has planned for us in the future, the promised return of Jesus Christ to claim us as his own, results in perseverance, steadfastness even in the face of opposition.

Calvin described v3 as a brief definition of true Christianity. So does that describe your Christian life? Is your life characterised by these three elements: your works of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ?

3. A Community that is loved and chosen by God

Remember that Paul is in Corinth as he writes this letter. While he was there he was given a vision of Jesus telling him that he had many people in that city. It may be that that was in his mind as he wrote this letter. He says: “We know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you.” Paul reminds them that it was God who chose them, not the other way round; that God loves them. And he does that in order to encourage them to persevere. And in case they’re wondering how he knows God has chosen them, he says “Look at what happened when I preached the gospel to you. It wasn’t just a matter of the words I spoke. No, the gospel had a powerful impact on you. You felt its conviction in your hearts. The Holy Spirit was at work in you in a powerful way.” He wants to take them back to that initial experience of conviction and the power of the gospel as a reminder of why they believed in the first place. And it wasn’t just the response of conversion that was remarkable: their new experience of faith and love and hope resulted in a godly life, in good works. 

4. A Community that continues the work of Gospel proclamation

The fourth thing we discover about the church here is that the work is never finished. The Gospel came to them in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (v5). But that wasn’t the end of it. The power of the Holy Spirit wasn’t something given for their use alone. Rather it resulted in them becoming imitators of Paul and Silas and Timothy.

Despite the fact that they quickly became the targets of persecution, they began to proclaim Christ to others. When the Jews stirred up a rent a mob, Paul escaped but in his place Jason, one of the leaders of the new church, and his friends were caught. But that hadn’t slowed them down. Already word has come to Paul that the gospel has sounded forth from them in all Macedonia and Achaia. The image is of a loud trumpet call ringing through the hills of Macedonia, or a thunderclap that’s heard for miles around.

What’s more it isn’t just the message that’s had an effect. He says “in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it” (v8). Their faith, love and hope have been contagious. Everyone’s talking about it.

There’s an important lesson for us to learn here isn’t there? We need a two-pronged approach to sharing the gospel with people. We need to proclaim it in words. So we need to have events, things like Alpha, that allow opportunity for people to hear the message. We need to take the opportunities that arise to ‘gossip the gospel’ with our friends. But we also need to demonstrate the power of the gospel through our lives, through the way we interact as a church, by the way we show God’s love to others, by the way our lives demonstrate the certain hope we have of a future with God. Remember what Jesus said about the new commandment? We’re to love one another so people will know we’re his disciples.

The result of them responding to the gospel wasn’t just a new found faith, love and hope. It resulted in them turning from idols to serve the true and living God. And that turning to the living God is a large part of what people have noticed.

I wonder is this a call to us to examine our lives to see whether we’ve turned away from the idols of our age to serve the true and living God. Are our lives any different from those around us? Can people see that there’s something different about us, about the things we value, the things we put our time and energy into, the things we talk about and plan for? Or are we still caught up in the worship of false gods: of consumerism, of family, of wealth, of possessions, of pleasure? Is our hope for the future tied up in our house and our superannuation fund and our professional life, or is it, like the Thessalonians, depending on the true and living God as we wait for his Son to return from heaven to rescue us from the wrath to come? It’s so easy to ignore our real future destiny and concentrate only on the world we currently live in, isn’t it? Perhaps our problem is that our life in this world is often all too easy.

The Thessalonians, you see, faced the possibility of severe persecution in this world, so the hope of the world to come became an important anchor to help them persevere. It’s harder for us to think beyond the relative comfort of our world to the far greater joy stored up for us in heaven when Christ returns. But if we do that it may provide us with the added incentive we need to continue to serve the true and living God until he returns.

What now?

So what are we to take away from this today?

First the Church that receives the Gospel has a responsibility to pass it on. Just as James said that faith without works is dead, so too, the church that receives the gospel but fails to pass it on might want to question whether they’ve really understood and taken on the implications of that gospel.

Secondly the Church that wants to pass on the gospel must first embody it. It’s no use speaking the words if the actions that go with the words don’t agree. Conversely if we live out the gospel in our lives then our words will have that much more power. So let’s be a church that proclaims the gospel in both word and deed and let’s pray that God would bring many to faith through our witness.

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