God at Work
I Thessalonians 1
On the first Sunday of the new year, it seems appropriate to reflect on things that will set a direction for the new year. As the old year closed, we gathered to think about all that God had done last year. How wonderful to see the grace of God and to apprehend how He has guided and provided. At this time of year, we also naturally think about the new year. For many it becomes a time for new beginnings - a new diet, exercise program, or some other “new year’s resolution.” As followers of Christ, this is also a good time to evaluate our direction and perhaps consider new beginnings.
One of the gifts I received for Christmas was this three foot level. I like to do projects around the house and I like to know if I am doing it right. A level is a standard against which other things are measured. If I place it on this pulpit, for example, it will reveal if the pulpit is level. This instrument is the standard of level and any imperfections measured against it will be revealed.
As we begin a new year, it is a good thing to evaluate our life. Are the values, practices and lifestyle decisions which determine how we live our life the ones we really want? Are they in line with Scripture? This morning, I would like to begin a series of messages on the book of I Thessalonians. Over the next few months, we will examine this book and we will learn about God, about ourselves and about how God wants us to live. We will be encouraged in faith and in hope.
The first chapter of I Thessalonians is the opening of a typical letter of that day. It always began, “me, to you, greetings,” and often included a word of thanksgiving. So I Thessalonians begins “Paul, Silas and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians…grace and peace to you.” Then the rest of the chapter is a word of thanks to God for them. In this word of thanks we have a picture of how God came to them and how they responded to the good news of the gospel. Paul praises God for His work and commends the Thessalonians for their response. There are a number of things in this chapter that are a standard, a measuring tool to evaluate our life. As we enter this new year, let us look at how God was at work in the Thessalonians and let us set our response to God alongside that of the Thessalonians. Perhaps we can be encouraged and learn something that will help set a direction for the new year.
I. How The Gospel Is Received 4-6
In verses 4-6, the letter begins by describing how the message of the gospel came to them in the first place. What is clearly evident is that it was a work of God.
A. God’s Choosing vs. 4
Verse 4 is a wonderful verse that tells us much about our salvation. It says two important things, for which we ought to be tremendously grateful. It tells us first of all that those who are God’s children are loved by God. He addresses them in this way saying, “Brothers loved by God.” This truth is powerfully presented in such verses as John 3:16 - “for God so loved the world” and Romans 5:8 - “But God demonstrates his love for us in this…”
Because of God’s love it says in verse 4, “we know that He has chosen you.”
The choice of the Thessalonians is demonstrated in the way the gospel came to them. While in Asia, Paul kept trying to go further in this region, but was prevented. Then a vision came of a man from Macedonia inviting them to go there. The vision implied that God’s call was on the people of Macedonia and they were ready to hear the gospel. Immediately they went there and came first of all to Philippi where they preached the gospel for some time. When they left Philippi, they went to Thessalonica and preached the gospel there.
What was true for them, is also true for us. Our salvation arises out of God’s choice. This concept raises are a lot of theological debates. Did God choose us or did we choose God? Some emphasize God’s choice of us to the extent that they say there is no need for evangelism because those God has chosen will become believers. Others emphasize our choice to the extent that there is a tremendous need to persuade and almost force people to come to Christ. My understanding of this is that there is a tremendous mystery here. The Bible tells us clearly here and in many other places that God chooses us. Therefore, we need to recognize God’s choice of us and God’s initiative in bringing salvation. On the other hand, the Bible also tells us very clearly that we must receive God’s gift of salvation and that the responsibility to respond is ours. We cannot diminish the responsibility we have. How to bring these two things together logically is difficult, but the truth presented by these mysterious ideas is not difficult at all. In the statement, “He has chosen you,” we have a great encouragement that we need to hear. Salvation begins with God. He takes the initiative. He wants a relationship with us. He has provided a way to make this relationship possible. He chooses us to be His children. What encouragement, hope and assurance is found in this statement.
B. Spirit Empowered Proclamation vs. 5
The evidence of God’s choosing is seen in the Spirit empowered proclamation through which the Thessalonians had received the gospel. Paul says that the gospel came to the Thessalonians not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” The story of their conversion is told in Acts 17. Paul went into the synagogue for three Sabbaths and reasoned from the Scriptures. When preaching in Philippi, Paul and Silas were miraculously released from prison resulting in the conversion of the jailer. There are no particular stories told of God’s power demonstrated in Thessalonica, but I Thessalonians 1:5 says that the gospel came with power.
It is important to recognise that when the gospel is proclaimed, there is more going on than just words spoken by human beings. God’s power is at work in the midst of it. One writer says, “eloquence is not a complete explanation of its effectiveness.” “The gospel is not the presentation of an idea, but the operation of a power.”
C. Spirit Blessed Reception vs. 6
The evidence of God’s choosing is also seen in the way in which they received the gospel. Paul speaks about severe suffering in verse 6. The suffering he was likely talking about was persecution. The Jews of that city were upset that Paul was changing people’s minds. They stirred up the officials, a mob formed and they forced Paul and the others to leave the city. When Paul and the others had left, it is very likely that the persecution continued.
Yet in spite of the persecution, they embraced the gospel. In verse 6 it says, “…in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” God’s Holy Spirit came into them and by the power of the Holy Spirit they embraced the gospel message and became followers of Jesus and did so with joy. Obviously God was at work. Suffering for the sake of Christ while they were still such young believers, we would think would cause them to deny the faith, but they did not. They accepted it and so it is clear that God did this in them.
I like the phrase, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.” They saw God in the apostles and followed Him.
As we think about this, it is time to get out the level. How do we view our salvation? Sometimes when we emphasize our response to the gospel, which we must make, we diminish what God has done. Then, we may develop an attitude of “I can take it or leave it” and the strength of our relationship comes from our resolve. If, on the other hand, we see our salvation as God’s work drawing us, changing us and making us his children, our perspective changes. We become much more aware of God’s work in us. We live with a greater sense of gratitude for God’s grace. We develop a deep thankfulness that spills over into all of life. What is it like in your life? Do you recognize how much God has been at work in your life? What difference does that make? How does this perspective help form the values you live by?
II. The Evidence Of The Gospel Received 7-10
A. A Model To Others vs. 7-9a
From Spirit empowered gospel proclamation, the Thessalonians responded, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and gave evidence that this was something God had done. God drew them, gave them the word and they responded. Acts 17:4 tells us that “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.”
The evidence of the gospel having been received was immediately obvious. People all over the place heard about what God had done. They had imitated the apostles and now, vs. 7 says, “you became a model.” In Achaia, in other parts of Macedonia and even beyond people heard about how God had come to the people of Thessalonica, had made a change in them and how they had responded.
When a stone is thrown into a pond, the ripples from that stone spread out to reach the furthest perimeter of the pond. So when the Thessalonians received God’s word, the news spread all over the region and people everywhere heard about the change that had taken place in these people.
B. Evident Change vs. 9b-10
What was it that people heard about the Thessalonians?
1. Turned to God from idols
First of all, people heard that these people turned away from serving idols. It is no small thing to make such a radical change in life. Change comes hard to all of us. I can’t imagine what it must be like to move from the northern to the southern hemisphere. It would be a radical change to have Christmas in the middle of summer holidays and school in July and August. When that change involves our most deeply held values, it is even more difficult. For people to change so radically from one form of worship to another is no small thing. Their values, lifestyle and hope had been totally bound up with the idols they worshipped. When they changed, they let go of what had been their hope and anchor for their whole life to that point.
2. Serve the living and true God
In place of the idols they had served, they now began to serve the living and true God.
We may wonder what kind of changes took place that gave evidence of this service. The Bible gives many suggestions. We can surmise that they began to love one another. They began to value the things of God more than the things of this earth. They began to walk in holiness and obedience.
3. Wait for his son
The further evidence of their tremendous change was the reality of the hope by which they now lived. They waited for the Son to return knowing that they had been rescued from His wrath. They lived by the hope that, as Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation.” Knowing that they were not under God’s wrath any more gave them a sense of peace and the knowledge of God’s acceptance. It is sad when people suffer under the burden of not knowing that they are accepted by God. Having been saved from God’s wrath, the Thessalonians did not need to live in that sadness any more.
Living with such a freedom, allowed them to also live with the hope of Christ’s return. Up to this point, their values were formed based on what they could see and what would happen in this life. Now, however, their values were formed with an eternal perspective, with the knowledge that what is here and now is passing away and will be replaced by the kingdom of Christ.
Once again it is time to get the level out. God had made a radical change in their life. From idol worshippers they had become God servers. Their fundamental values had changed. When we became Christians, did we leave behind the hopes that we had before? Did we leave behind hope in money, hope in friends? Did we give up on the idols that we served? Do we have the understanding that we are serving a living God? Do we serve the living and true God or do we continue to serve ourselves or depend on ourselves? The change was so amazing that people everywhere heard about what God had done. Is the evidence of God’s having changed us known in that people all over the world hear about our faith and what God has done among us? A few weeks ago we had a testimony and the person shared that they would like to live their life in such a way that if they were accused of being a Christian, there would be enough evidence to convict them. Are we living our lives like that?
III. The Result Of The Gospel Received. 2,3
The Thessalonians changed radically, a change that was obviously brought about by God Himself. They accepted God’s work in them. The result of that change is seen in verses 2,3. Here we have that familiar trilogy - faith, love and hope.
Jacob Elias, who has written a commentary on I Thessalonians, suggests that faith represents the past - what we have believed; love represents the present - how we now live; and hope represents the future - what we are anticipating. When they are put together in this way, it is evident that among the Thessalonians, “- past, present and future fit together in a dynamic way.”
A. Work Produced By Faith
The first result mentioned is “work produced by faith.” When a person has faith in God, work will result. The Christian life is not and can never be simply what happens in our mind. What happens in our mind results in deeds. What are the specific works which the Thessalonians did because of their faith in God? We are not told, but once again the Bible is loaded with ideas of how a faith life would act. It will be a life of holiness. The work of walking in holiness is a work which comes naturally when God is living in a person. It will be a work of obedience to God and his ways. Rather than self as Lord, God becomes Lord and it becomes time to do His will. It will be a work of service to God by using the gifts he has given. I suspect that holiness and service by using spiritual gifts were the works of faith among the Thessalonians.
B. Labour Prompted By Love
The second result of the changed life was that there was “labour prompted by love.” Love is deeply a part of who God is. His love is the origin from which salvation comes. So then it must also be a powerful part of how God’s people live. The Thessalonians must have given evidence of their changed hearts by the love they had for one another. How was that love seen? It was likely seen in the forgiveness that marked their relationships even with those whom they considered enemies or who had hurt them. It was probably seen in caring for the needs of those less fortunate. The knowledge of God’s love for them prompted them to express love for God by loving others. These things can never be far separated from each other.
C. Endurance Inspired By hope.
The final result of the changed life was a life lived in hope. Already early in their life as Christians they’d had to endure persecution, but God had given them an eternal hope and because of that eternal hope, they were able to endure. The Bible is clear that Christians will not go through life without difficulties. For the Thessalonians, difficulty came early. But they endured because they had gotten hold of an eternal hope because of Christ.
We live in the already and not yet, “too early for heaven, yet too late for the world.” Like crocuses in the snow, we are a sign of the world to come and at the same time a guarantee of its coming. Bosch
Let us get the level out once more and ask the question, “how are these things at work in our life?”
Is our faith resulting in work for God? Is holiness evident in our life? Are we using the gifts God has given us to serve Him? Are we marked by love, forgiveness and patience because we are so deeply aware of how much we are loved by God? Are we able to endure any trial because we know that this is not the end of the story.
The power of this passage is the power of example. It is important to see the way in which God had clearly done a work among the Thessalonians. But an equally important example is the response of the Thessalonians. They accepted the God presented message with a God empowered ability so that they clearly turned to God. What do we learn from this example?
We need to consider our own salvation. Was it our thing and is it based on us or do we see it as God’s thing? Is it evident that God has changed us? If not, perhaps we need to begin the year by admitting our need of God.
Furthermore, we need to consider our response to the change that has taken place. If God has changed us, is that change evident in our walk daily? Do we walk by faith, hope and love?
Is our life an example so that people all around can look at us and praise God for what He has done?
As we begin this new year, let us look at our relationship to God once again. Let the “level” of I Thessalonians form a way of evaluating what God has done, how we have responded and how we are walking now.