- Life-changing moments?
Do you think it is possible for people to be significantly changed at their deepest levels by an event? Do you think a single event could change the goals and life direction of an individual?
If not – think about Brant Webb and Todd Russell: remember them – the miners who were trapped at Beaconsfield just 5 months ago, when a small earthquake collapsed a tunnel in that gold mine in which they were mining. Do you think they have changed because of that? One event – which has changed them physically and mentally, changed their work situation and given them a very different outlook on life.
I’m not a miner, nor are most of us, nor most of our friends or families. Is there anything which could change us that dramatically, or perhaps even moreso? Indeed is there anything which has the power to change every human being in the world? The answer is yes – and we see what it is as we look at what the Apostle Paul wrote to some Christians in Thessalonica in around 51AD.
You might like to turn to 1 Thessalonians 1, as we investigate the cause of their change, the means used to change them, and the results of their change.
- The Thessalonians have changed
a) the cause
You may remember if you were here last week how Paul begins this letter to his dear friends in Thessalonica by thanking God for them – in particular, in v3, for their faith, love and hope.
But v3 is actually part of one long sentence in Paul’s letter which stretches from v2 to v10. A sentence in which Paul thanks God for the remarkable changes he, that is God, has achieved in the lives of these people.
Their faith, love and hope have come about; why – because God has been at work in them. These 3 Christian characteristics show that God has chosen them – see v4.
God has chosen them. It is surely the most remarkable act ever that God chooses some people to be saved. It is the doctrine of pre-destination – that in the eternal decrees of God, he chooses to save some people. In our Anglican formularies, the 39 Articles, Article 17 says the consideration of this doctrine of pre-destination ‘is full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to godly persons’.
Some people get hung up on pre-destination and election, they think surely I have the freedom to choose. And the Bible does hold that human beings are certainly responsible for their decisions and actions. As we look forward in our lives we see choices we need to make. But the Bible also tells us that God is sovereign. And so as we look back on our lives we see evidence of God’s guidance and provision. Were it not for the sovereign work of God, then I and you would never freely choose to leave our life of blissful sin and rebellion against God. We need God to convict us and empower us to turn and put our faith in Jesus.
ILLN – in this month’s Southern Cross (encourage you to grab a copy from the back of the church), there is an interview with Jimmy. Just over a year ago Jimmy, who was 73 at the time, remembered a Bible verse he had seen some 6 years earlier on the base of a statue – it said ‘by grace you are saved’. And as he pondered that verse he realised that he too was saved. And he says in this interview – ‘I could not believe that God had visited me. I was not a churchgoer nor a good man. I smoked, I drank, I gambled. Why did God pick me? I lifted my head and breathed a word, ‘Thanks’.’
God chose Jimmy to be saved. Not because of anything Jimmy had done, but because God loves him. If you are a Christian, and by that I mean someone who has put their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, then you are only a Christian because God chose you. Just as God had done that work of election in the Thessalonians.
But why was Paul sure of God’s election of the Thessalonians? Because of the means God used and the results of God’s work.
b) the means
So what means had God used to save these people in Thessalonica?
His Word and His Spirit.
Look at vv4-5 – READ.
Our gospel – our words, our message about Jesus, came to you not simply with words but with … power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.
The gospel of Jesus Christ can never be effectively communicated without words – music, mime, dance, even good works are not enough, and do not communicate the gospel unless there are words as well.
But even words are not enough. All our eloquence, or lack of it, all our wisdom and logic, all our knowledge of English, all our debating skills, won’t save people either. The word must be accompanied by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, if people are to be saved. And that is part of his work. God the Holy Spirit is a missionary God.
Remember Jimmy – he says ‘the Spirit of the living God descended upon me, surrounded me and filled the whole of my body.’ He knew the word of God, and then experienced the power of the Holy Spirit bringing him to conversion and new life.
Such was the case with the Thessalonians. The gospel came to them with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. God was there as they heard the gospel, and he was working powerfully through his word and His spirit, to save them and assure them of His truth and his work. They were totally convinced and sure in their hearts that this gospel they had heard was true, and they were now God’s people.
The gospel is still the means God uses to save people, accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit. That means if we want to see people saved we must ensure they hear the gospel, and we must be asking the Holy Spirit to work in them to believe.
c) the result
But not only was it the means that proved to Paul that the Thessalonians had been chosen by God and had truly been changed, but it was the result of their conversion that also proved the change.
Look at the results:
i) v6 – they imitated Paul, Silas and Timothy, in welcoming the message with joy, despite severe suffering.
In some churches today it seems that the reasons given to people why they should believe the gospel are to do with selfish motives – become a Christian and God will bless you and make you rich, healthy and happy. Read this month’s Briefing magazine for some more thoughts on that. This so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ seems to imply that a ‘good life’ means the absence of hardship, pain and suffering. But the gospel I understand suggests the very opposite – life is difficult, we live now in a fallen world, suffering and pain and hardship are unavoidable. But trust in Jesus brings true joy in spite of suffering, the joy of being brought, even through suffering, closer to God. Nothing and no-one can take that from them. As Jesus says ‘eternal life is that we may know God.’
So which of these characterized the Thessalonians’ experience? They had seen what had happened to Paul, Silas and Timothy because of their faith in Jesus, and yet the Thessalonians still chose to follow Jesus, and keep following him, even though it caused them severe suffering from Jews and Gentiles alike. And to willingly choose to go through such suffering, and to do so with joy, was, to Paul, evidence of their election.
ii) the second result of God’s work in them is there in v7 – they became a model to other believers throughout Greece, that is the area of Macedonia and Achaia Paul mentions, and indeed even more widely, everywhere, Paul says.
Isn’t that amazing. These young Christians are already an example to other Christian believers.
And if you think about it – there was probably someone who modeled Christianity to you. Can you remember who it was? Or who they were? As you think of them – ask yourself, who are you modelling Christianity to?
iii) the third result of God’s work in them is in v8 – the Lord’s message rang out from them. God is a missionary God, and they became a missionary people.
The people on the big trading routes through Thessalonica, through Greece, along the great highways and on the ships sailing out of Thessalonica were saying to others – have you heard about those Christians at Thessalonica? People have even been reporting to Paul the great effects in the lives of these young Christian believers.
Is that what people say about us – have you seen what’s happened to those people at St Mark’s? Do they see and hear the gospel in us? Are we a bell ringing out in our community proclaiming the gospel of our Lord Jesus?
iv) and vv9-10 – they turned to God from idols, to serve him and wait for Jesus to return.
That’s what people do when they become Christians – they turn away from idols. Becoming a Christian involves a decisive break with our non-Christian habits and way of life. In Thessalonica we imagine there were many idols, idols gripped their whole culture, but now these people who have become Christians have rejected these idols, they’ve turned away from them. And we need to ask – have we turned away from the idols of our day? From materialism, ungodly achievement, the idols of family or self or pleasure?
But it is not just turning away, what matters is what we then turn to, and what we do after we’ve turned. The Thessalonians had turned from idols to God – to the true and living God, in contrast to these idols which were false and dead – and they had started serving him, in fact had become slaves to God.
And for us – not just have we turned from idols, but are we actually serving the true and living God? With our whole life – involved in prayer, obedience, giving, ministry, and evangelism?
Remember Jimmy – not only is he now a keen member of church, his wife says she has noticed the changes in him – she says ‘after church he likes to talk to people about deep and meaningful things, about what he is reading in the Bible. He also doesn’t swear like he used to.’ Jimmy turned from idols, to serve the true and living God. So did the Thessalonians.
And as they did so, their whole perspective on life had changed so that they now waited patiently for God’s Son, the Lord Jesus, to return from heaven, to fully and eternally establish his kingdom and to complete their rescue from God’s coming wrath. Only through Jesus’ death and resurrection can anyone be saved from God’s wrath, and as a person puts his or her trust in Jesus, so God forgives that person, gives them a royal pardon, and adopts them into his family. The Thessalonians understood this was where history was heading – that final day when Jesus will return and God’s judgement be completed. For many of us there is much to look forward to in this life, but whatever happens is incomparable to what life will be like when Jesus returns. Do we have this perspective on life and history? For the Thessalonians this expectation determined how they lived in the here and now – does it do so for us?
The Thessalonian Christians are models for us. They show us what true belief looks like, and how it ought to be manifest in our lives. For true belief leads to true behaviour.
We need to ask ourselves
- has God chosen me? How do I know? Have I received his word as the true gospel, through the power and work of the Holy Spirit?
- do I rejoice in knowing God more even through suffering and pain?
- am I a model to other believers?
- do I share the gospel with non-Christians?
- have I turned away from all those idols I see around, or have perhaps been enslaved to in the past, and am now serving God, the true and living God, and waiting patiently for Jesus to return.
I asked at the start - Do you think it is possible for people to be significantly changed at their deepest levels by an event? Do you think a single event could change the goals and life direction of an individual? Is there anything which has the power to change every human being in the world? The answer to all those question is – yes. As people hear the gospel of the Lord Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit they can be changed, changed forever, and saved from God’s coming wrath just as the Thessalonians were, just as many of us have been. Let us be thankful for what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, and may it be the motivation to do the same for others.