Authentic Joy

| 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Week of September 30, 2018

The Point:  Authentic joy flows from a relationship with Jesus.

Christian Evangelism:  1 Thessalonians 1:1-10.

[1] Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. [2] We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, [3] remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. [4] For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, [5] because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. [6] And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, [7] so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. [8] For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. [9] For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and 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 delivers us from the wrath to come.   [ESV]

  1. The church of God [1:1-4]. “Paul, Silas and Timothy were the missionary team who evangelized Thessalonica. It is truly remarkable to read Paul’s comprehensive portrayal of the Thessalonian church. It is only a few months old. Its members are newborn Christians, freshly converted from either Judaism or paganism. Their Christian convictions have been newly acquired. Their Christian moral standards have been recently adopted. And they are being sorely tested by persecution. You would expect it to be a very wobbly church in a very precarious condition. But no, Paul is confident about it, because he knows it is God’s church, and because he has confidence in God. He delineates it in three ways. (a) The church is a community which lives in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ [1].  The Greek word for church is ekklesia, which means ‘an assembly’. In those days it was used in a variety of contexts, religious and secular. What, then, was distinctive about the church to which Paul is writing? It is this. It is in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. What kind of relationship has he in mind by the preposition in? it is certainly not spatial, as if the church were somehow ‘inside’ God. Nor does it seem to mean that the church is ‘founded on’ God or that its members ‘belong to’ God or simply that they ‘have God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord’, true as all these statements are. Nor does it seem natural to take in as instrumental and translate the phrase ‘brought into being by’ God. To be ‘in Christ’ is a favorite expression of Paul’s. Two New Testament metaphors explain this usage, the first developed by Jesus and the second by Paul. Jesus spoke of His disciples being ‘in Him as branches are in the vine’ [John 15], while Paul sees us as being ‘in Christ’ as limbs are in the body [1 Cor. 12]. In both cases the relationship in mind is a vital, organic union which makes possible the sharing of a common life. The fact that Paul here adds in God the Father seems no reason why the ‘in’ relationship should mean something different. Perhaps we should paraphrase the preposition ‘in’ as meaning ‘living in’, ‘rooted in’ or ‘drawing its life from’. Paul wanted to remind this young and persecuted church that in the midst of their trials their security was in God. It is from Him that every church derives its life, strength and stability. To this church Paul now sends his greeting Grace to you and peace. God’s peace is not just the absence of conflict, but the fullness of health and harmony through reconciliation with Him and with each other. And God’s grace is His free, undeserved favor through Christ which confers this peace and sustains it. (b)  The church is a community which is distinguished by faith, hope, and love [3].  Paul tells the Thessalonians that he, Silas and Timothy always thanked God for them all, mentioned them in their prayers, and continually remembered them before God. Thus memory, thanksgiving and prayer belong together. What Paul and his companions especially remembered about the Thessalonians was the three most eminent Christian graces (faith, love and hope) which characterized their lives. Two aspects of these Christian qualities need to be noted. First, each is outgoing. Faith is directed towards God, love towards others, and hope towards the future, in particular the glorious coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith, hope and love are sure evidences of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Together they completely reorientate our lives, as we find ourselves being drawn up towards God in faith, out towards others in love and on towards the Parousia in hope. The new birth means little or nothing if it does not pull us out of our fallen introversion and redirect us towards God, Christ and our fellow human beings. Secondly, each is productive. It is this that Paul emphasizes. Faith, hope and love sound rather abstract qualities, but they have concrete, practical results. Faith works, love labors and hope endures. A true faith in God leads to good works, and without works faith is dead. A true love for people leads to labor for them; otherwise it degenerates into mere sentimentality. And a true hope, which looks expectantly for the Lord’s return, leads to endurance, which is patient fortitude in the face of opposition. (c)  The church is a community which is loved and chosen by God [4].  In verse 4 Paul unites the love of God and the election of God. That is, He chose us because He loves us, and He loves us because He loves us. He does not love us because we are lovable, but only because He is love. And with that mystery we must rest content. Here, then, is Paul’s threefold delineation of the church. It is a community beloved and chosen by God in a past eternity, rooted in God and drawing its life from Him, and exhibiting this life of God in a faith which works, a love which labors and a hope which endures. What stands out of Paul’s vision of the church is its God-centeredness. He does not think of it as a human institution, but as the divine society.
  2. The gospel of God [1:5-7]. It was natural for Paul to move on in his mind from God’s church to God’s gospel because he could not think of either without the other. It is by the gospel that the church exists and by the church that the gospel spreads. Each depends on the other. Each serves the other. In verses 5-10 the apostle outlines in three clear stages the progress of the gospel in Thessalonica. First, our gospel came to us [5]. Secondly, you received the word [6]. Thirdly, the word of the Lord sounded forth from you [8]. Thus it came to you, you received it, and you passed it on. This sequence is God’s continuing purpose throughout the world. (a)  Our gospel came to you [5].  Of course, it did not come by itself. It did not drop by parachute from heaven. No, Paul, Silas and Timothy brought it. Before they arrived in Thessalonica there was no church; when they left, the church had been planted and had taken root. How did this happen? The planting of the church was the direct result of the preaching of the gospel, which Paul now depicts by four expressions. In word. True, the gospel did not come with words only, but it did come to them with words. For the gospel is itself a word or message. Words matter. They are the building blocks of sentences by which we communicate with one another. And the gospel has a specific content. That is why it must be articulated, verbalized. So in all our evangelism, whether in public preaching or in private witnessing, we need to take trouble with our choice of words. In power. Words by themselves are seldom enough, even in secular discourse. Because they may be misunderstood or disregarded, they need somehow to be enforced. This is even more the case in Christian communication, since blind eyes and hard hearts do not appreciate the gospel. So words spoken in human weakness need to be confirmed with divine power. Here power refers to the internal operation of the Holy Spirit. It is only by His power that the Word can penetrate people’s mind, heart, conscience and will. We must never divorce what God has married, namely His Word and His Spirit. The Word of God is the Spirit’s sword. The Spirit without the Word is weaponless; the Word without the Spirit is powerless. With full conviction. Power and conviction go together in this verse. Power describes the objective result of the preaching, conviction the subjective state of the preacher. Paul’s preaching was not only powerful in its effect but confident in its presentation. He was sure of his message, of its truth and its relevance, and in consequence was bold in proclaiming it. In the Holy Spirit. I deliberately take this expression last because it seems to me to belong to all the other three. That is to say, the truth of the Word, the conviction with which we speak it, and the power of its impact on others all come from the Holy Spirit. It is He who illumines our minds, so that we formulate our message with integrity and clarity. It is He whose inward witness assures us of its truth, so that we preach it with conviction. And it is He who carries it home with power, so that the hearers respond to it in penitence, faith and obedience. (b)  You welcomed the message [6].  As Paul has given a description of his preaching of the gospel, so now he gives an equally full description of the Thessalonians’ receiving of it. His first thought is to link it with their afflictions. In much affliction. There had been considerable opposition in Thessalonica to the gospel, and so also to those who preached it and those who embraced it. The authentic gospel always arouses hostility (not least because it challenges human pride and self-indulgence), although the opposition it provokes takes different forms. But persecution had not deterred the Thessalonians. They have received the word in spite of the suffering involved. With the joy of the Holy Spirit. We must not miss this second reference to the Holy Spirit within two verses. The same Spirit who gave power to those who preached the gospel gave joy to those who received it. He was working at both ends, so to speak, in the speakers and in the hearers. And it is not surprising to read of the converts’ joy, for joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Wherever the gospel goes and people respond, there is joy – joy in heaven among the angels over sinners repenting, as Jesus said [Luke 15:7,10], and joy on earth among the people of God [Acts 8:8,39; 13:52; 16:34]. This pattern of outward opposition and inward joy has often been repeated in the long history of the church [John 16:33]. You became imitators of us and of the Lord.  This expression indicates the profound change which came over the lives of the converts. They began to follow the example as well as the teaching of the apostles, and so of Jesus. Receiving the gospel is no mere intellectual acquiescence in the truth of the gospel; it is a complete transformation of behavior through a close following of Christ and His apostles. So that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia [7].  Those who take Christ and His apostles as their model inevitably themselves become a model to others. It is marvelous to see the effect of the gospel on those who receive it. It may mean persecution and consequent suffering. But it also involves inward joy through the Holy Spirit, the imitation of Christ and the apostles in changed lives, and the setting of an example to others. Four new relationships seem to be implied – the opposition of the world, the joy of the Holy Spirit, the imitation of the Lord and His apostles, and being a model to the rest of the church. If the preachers were marked by truth, conviction and power, the converts were marked by joy, courage and obedience. Let nobody say that the gospel is devoid of wholesome effects.
  3. The Lord’s message rang out from you [1:8-10]. The gospel proclaimed by the Thessalonians made a loud noise, which seemed to reverberate through the hills and valleys of Greece. We must notice carefully the threefold contrast in verse 8 between the two means by which the gospel spread from Thessalonica. The first is between the word of the Lord (direct preaching) and your faith in God (an indirect report). The second is between the loud sounding forth of the gospel and the much quieter becoming known for their faith. And the third is between the local provinces of Macedonia and Achaia which the preaching reached, and everywhere to which the news of their faith had penetrated. Even if Paul’s everywhere is hyperbole, he is certainly saying that the Thessalonians’ faith was becoming known for beyond Greece, maybe west by land to Rome and east by sea to Ephesus. Something extraordinary is going on in Thessalonica: a new society is coming into being with new values and standards, characterized by faith, love and hope. The result of such gratuitous publicity was tremendous: so that we need not say anything. Mind you, Paul may be forgiven for a little harmless exaggeration. He did not mean literally that he was no longer necessary. He carried on preaching the gospel, but especially where Christ was not known. For we take his point: the good news was advancing spontaneously. Paul goes on in verses 9 and 10 to give a three-part analysis of Christian conversion, which is arguably the fullest account of it in the New Testament. It indicates that conversion involves (1) a decisive break with idols, (2) an active service of God, and (3) a patient waiting for Christ. These three steps are summed up in the verbs you turned … to serve … to wait. (1) You turned to God from idols [9].  The verb translated turned became an almost technical term for conversion, which is a turn from sin to Christ, from darkness to light, and from idols to God. It would be difficult to exaggerate how radical is the change of allegiance which is implied by the turn from idols to the living and true God. Idols include the more sophisticated idols of modern secularism. Some people are eaten up with a selfish ambition for money, power or fame. Others are obsessed with their work, or with sport or television, or are infatuated with a person, or addicted to food, alcohol, hard drugs or sex. Both immorality and greed are later pronounced by Paul to be forms of idolatry, because they demand an allegiance which is due to God alone. So every idolater is a prisoner, held in humiliating bondage. Then, through the gospel and the grace of God, in many cases suddenly and completely, the prisoner turns to God from the idols which have so far controlled his or her life. It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ in which the spell of the idol is broken and the superior power of the living and true God is demonstrated. People are amazed and filled with awe, and they spread the good news. (2) to serve the living and true God [9].  The claim to have turned to God from idols is manifestly bogus if it does not result in serving the God to whom we have turned. We must not think of conversion only in negative terms as a turning away from the old life, but also positively as the beginning of a new life of service. We could say that it is the exchange of one slavery for another, so long as we add that the new slavery is the real freedom. In this way authentic conversion involves a double liberation, both from the thralldom of the idols whose slaves we were and into the service of God whose children we become. (3) and to wait for his Son from heaven [10].  It is immediately noteworthy that serving and waiting go together in the experience of converted people. Indeed, this is at first sight surprising, since serving is active, while waiting is passive. Yet these two are not incompatible. On the contrary, each balances the other. On the one hand however hard we work and serve, there are limits to what we can accomplish. We can only improve society; we cannot perfect it. We shall never build a utopia on earth. For that we have to wait for Christ to come. Only then will He secure the final triumph of God’s reign of justice and peace. On the other hand, although we must look expectantly for the coming of Christ, we have no liberty to wait in idleness, indifferent to the needs of the world around us. Instead, we must work even while we wait, for we are called to serve the living and true God. Thus working and waiting belong together. In combination they will deliver us both from the presumption which thinks we can do everything and from the pessimism which thinks we can do nothing. In this first reference of the letter to the Parousia (which is hereafter mentioned in every chapter of both letters), Paul tells us two truths about Him for whom we are waiting. First, Jesus is the one, whom he (God) raised from the dead. The Resurrection not only publicly declared Jesus to be the Son of God but was also the beginning of God’s new creation, the pledge that He will complete what He has begun. The resurrection from the dead assure us of the return from heaven. Secondly, Jesus is the one who delivers us from the wrath to come. Already Jesus has delivered us from the condemnation of our sins and the power of our idols. But when He comes, He will accomplish the final stage of our salvation: He will rescue us from the outpouring of the wrath of God. God’s wrath is neither an impersonal process of cause and effect, nor a passionate, arbitrary or vindictive outburst of temper, but His holy and uncompromising antagonism to evil, with which He refuses to negotiate. One day His judgment will fall. It is from this terrible event that Jesus is our deliverer.”    [Stott, pp. 25-44].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What three statements does Paul make concerning the church of the Thessalonians [1:1-4]? What does in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ mean for the church? What three characteristics does Paul mention concerning this church in verse 3?
  2. What is the relationship between the gospel and the church [1:5-7]? What three clear stages of the progress of the gospel in Thessalonica does Paul mention? In what four ways did the gospel come to this church? Describe the role of the Holy Spirit in this church.
  3. What is the threefold contrast in verse 8 between the two means by which the gospel spread from Thessalonica? What analysis of conversion does Paul give us in 1:9-10? What is the importance for the life of the church of the three verbs: turned, serve, wait?
  4. Compare your church to the church at Thessalonica described in these 10 verses. How does your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope compare? Does your church experience the joy of the Holy Spirit? Is your church an example to believers elsewhere? To what degree has your church turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven?

References:

The Letters to the Thessalonians, Gene Green, Eerdmans.

The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.

1-2 Thessalonians, Jeffrey Weima, ECNT, Baker.