In Word and Power
For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance.
1 THESSALONIANS 1:5
The key, as I want to show you, to the whole first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is found in verse 5. But I do not propose merely to deal with that statement. I also want to look at the entire passage because I want to try to show that in this chapter the great apostle deals with a modern problem, perhaps one of the most pressing and urgent problems confronting the Christian church at this present time. That problem is none other than that of evangelism. I know that it is not always referred to in those terms at the present time. We do not talk as much as we used to about evangelism. We feel that we are living in a different world, that people are different and that we are different. So we have our new terms, and now the problem is the problem of “communication.” But, of course, this is just another instance of the way in which we fool ourselves by changing terms. It is really the same old problem, the problem of evangelism.
As we know, every section of the Christian church is very concerned about the problem of evangelism and has been trying to deal with it for many years. Many commissions have been set up. Many gatherings have been held. Many books have been written on the subject. There is a feeling that somehow or other the Christian church is failing to get her message over to the world that is outside. We believe that this message and this alone can deal with the problems of mankind. But the question is, how can we communicate this?
Another new term is articulate. How can we articulate the gospel? How exactly are we to do this? This is causing great concern because, we are told, we are living in a post-Christian era, we are living in the atomic age, the scientific age. And somehow the idea is that people are now altogether different, and it is no use doing what the church has done before and in the way she has done it throughout the centuries; we must have something new. For these reasons there must be some new way of evangelism and of communicating the gospel. And great effort and endeavor has gone into the attempt to discover how exactly we can do this.
Now some feel that we need a new message, a new gospel. They say, “It’s no use asking modern people, with their scientific knowledge, to believe what their forefathers believed. It’s no use asking them to believe in a three-tier universe. They know too much, scientifically, to be able to accept the miraculous and the supernatural and so on.” There is a movement on the continent of Europe associated with a man named Rudolf Bultmann. This movement says that the greatest hindrance to the acceptance of the message of the New Testament is the fact that unfortunately there are accretions, additions, to the essential message—additions such as the virgin birth, miracles worked by our Lord and the apostles and others, and the whole idea of the supernatural. Bultmann teaches, and many on the continent of Europe follow him, that the thing we must do is to get rid of the supernatural and miraculous element. We must “demythologize” the gospel, we are told, before it can possibly be accepted by people today. Many others are propounding their theories and ideas also. These men say that what we need is a new message for this new age, for man come of age, for man grown up.
Another major school of thought says, “That isn’t what’s needed. It isn’t so much a new message we need as new methods.” These people concentrate entirely on the question of methods. They say, “How does big business succeed? How does any enterprise succeed in the world?” And they look around and discover that success is achieved as the result of advertising. You need a little money to advertise, so they persuade people to give it. They present themselves and promote themselves, and an advertising agency comes into being. And then they say that secular agencies use certain instruments—television, radio, and so on—and these agencies understand the psychology of the people, the psychology of salesmanship; so the church must become interested in these things. She has a commodity to sell, as it were, a message to give to the people, and she must learn from big business and from the advertising people. This is how to achieve success.
A great deal of attention has been paid to this question of method. Particular types of services are planned almost down to the last minute, and in these services everything is designed to appeal to the palates of modern people. It is argued that as long as we adopt these new methods, the people will come and listen to us, and the gospel will be propagated and will begin to influence their lives. Now it is important that we should be aware of exactly what is happening. The argument is that if we apply one or the other of these methods, and perhaps both together, then the church has some hope of getting her message over to this post-Christian world, to this atomic age.
I shall not weary you by analyzing those theories in detail. My whole position is simply that all this is entirely wrong because it is based on the assumption that we are faced with a new position, and that is something that I cannot grant even for a moment. There is nothing new about the problem confronting the church. The church has always had this problem, and that is why I am calling your attention to this particular chapter in Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, for here is an account by the apostle Paul of how the gospel was propagated and how churches came into being in the first century. This letter is said by the scholars to be the apostle’s first epistle, and that is interesting in and of itself. In this first chapter Paul reminds these members of the church in Thessalonica of how the gospel came to them and how they had become a church.
I want to show you, and it is very simple to do, that when the apostle went to Thessalonica, he was confronted by precisely the same problem that confronts us at this present time. And that is why I am saying that instead of wasting our time trying to discover a new message or how to apply methods used by the world to bring success, all we must do is go back to the New Testament and discover how it happened at the beginning. If you read church history, you will find that all the great eras and epochs in the history of the Christian church, the times when she succeeded most of all and when masses of people were converted and added to the church, were always those periods when the church went back to the apostolic method. Indeed, I do not hesitate to make the assertion that you can try anything else you like, you can have your conferences and congresses and spend your millions in advertising, but it will achieve nothing finally. We must return to the apostolic method, and here the great apostle tells us exactly what he did and how it happened in this first age. There is no need to consider anything else whatsoever.
So, then, what did happen? The apostle tells us quite simply. Let me remind you of his position when he went to Thessalonica. Here is a little man, nothing much to look at. The Corinthians said, “His bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor. 10:10). Paul did not look like a film star; he was most unprepossessing. He had just a few people with him when he went to this city. It was a pagan city, a part of Macedonia, what is now Greece. Its citizens had no biblical background. We are told today that the modern man cannot follow our preaching because he does not understand biblical terms such as justification. That is why some new translations or paraphrases of the Bible are brought out, and people feel that if only we had the Bible in everyday language, everybody would believe the message. Well, they did not understand the terms in Thessalonica either. They had no background whatsoever, as I shall show you. But the apostle went there, and as a result of his visit and his preaching, a church came into being.
And the apostle Paul tells us here exactly how it happened. It is an amazing summary of the apostolic method of evangelism. He tells us that there were two major factors. The first was the preaching of the apostles. This was essential. Our Lord had given the message to these men. He had given them the commission and the mandate. And they had gone out, and they had preached. This is always an essential. You must have preachers. We must have preachers in our homelands. We must have preachers in other lands that can still be described as pagan. Now I am a believer in books and in reading, but there is no question about this—it is the spoken word that has always been honored supremely by the Holy Spirit—preachers, truth mediated through personalities. And as you think of the teeming masses in many countries today—nations in South America, Asia, the Far East, and other parts of the world—you see the crying need for preachers, for men and women who will go, as these apostles went, over their part of the world preaching the gospel, preaching this message. Preachers are needed as much today as they have ever been.
Oh, I know that at the present time many say that the day of preaching is finished. We must have what is called “dialogue”—which means discussion—but dialogue sounds so much better! They say we must sit down and talk to people. Others say that all we must do is spend our time reading modern literature and studying modern art and drama and then go and talk to people about these subjects. And others say we must go in for politics and discuss politics and social conditions. All these new ideas and new methods are being put before us and praised and advocated. But I am here to remind you that God’s method has always been the preaching of the gospel, and there has never been a greater need for preachers than at this present time. Nothing can substitute for preaching.
But that is only the first factor. There is a second. I wonder if you have ever noticed it as you read this chapter. There was a second vital factor in the spread of the gospel in the ancient world. What was that? It was the life and the witness and the testimony of the members of the Christian church. Paul says:
And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost. So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. (1 Thess. 1:6–9)
This is a most vital matter. What the apostle is really saying is this: You know, you good people, you members of the church of Thessalonica, you are making my preaching much easier. What I am finding now is that wherever I go and begin to preach, people stop me and say, “Ah, you’re the man who preached in Thessalonica. We’ve heard about you. We’ve heard the news of what happened as the result of your speaking and preaching there.” News about the amazing things that had happened to these people in the city of Thessalonica had spread abroad. Everybody was talking about it, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but everywhere. And Paul says in essence, “There is a sense in which we do not need to speak anything now, because they know about it. The news about you has opened the doors for us, and the task has been made much easier.”
This is a most important matter. I have sometimes feared that we are rapidly getting to the stage in which there will only be two or three preachers—if even that many—in the world. And the rest of the world will be listening to them on tapes or on television or something else. Everybody will be sitting back and listening, as if that is the way to evangelize the world. It is not! You need preachers, but you also need the testimony and the witness of the members of the church. Whatever the preaching, if it is not verified and substantiated by the lives of the people in the Christian church, it will be of no avail. And this is what the apostle tells us happened in his day and generation.
Now I confess that it was not until 1961 that I fully realized the tremendous implications of what Paul says here. It was in that year that I had the privilege of visiting the land of Greece. And then I realized something of what this chapter is saying. Paul says that the news spread abroad “not only in Macedonia.” Let me give you a bit of geography. Thessalonica is up at the northeastern tip of Greece, and the hinterland, the section of country behind it—it is a seaport—was known as Macedonia. So it is not a bit surprising that what had happened under the preaching of the apostle in the town of Thessalonica was being talked about in Macedonia. But Paul says, “Not only in Macedonia and Achaia.” Achaia was the part of Greece that we now know as the Peloponnesian Peninsula, the part of Greece that is south of the Corinthian Canal. I discovered this in 1961, and it amazed me and lit up this whole passage for me. I did a journey from Corinth to Thessalonica, and I found it a most arduous trip. We had to cross a portion of sea. Then we went in a car, and we had to cross three high mountain ranges. It was quite a difficult journey even in 1961 since it is quite a considerable distance over the most difficult terrain. And yet the apostle says that news of what had happened up there in Thessalonica had spread all the way down over these great mountain ranges, right down to Achaia. They had no television. They had no radio. They had no telephone. They had no newspapers. But this astounding gospel was being talked of and was being spread from mouth to mouth, so that when Paul even went to the southernmost tip, they were ready for him and were waiting to receive his message.
Now this is a most important matter at the present time. We need preachers and evangelists, but equally we need men and women in our churches who open the door for the preacher, who proclaim the message in their lives, who attract people to come and listen to the gospel because of the marvelous things that happen to those who believe this message. The book of Acts frequently makes the point that ordinary church members as well as the apostles and other preachers spread this gospel, and this has been a leading factor in all great revivals and reformations. You find the same thing in the time of the Protestant Reformation. Everybody knew when people had become Protestants. They became objects of conversation and comment. The same is true of the Puritans in England, the Covenanters in Scotland, and the early Methodists. Everybody saw what had happened to them and talked about this astonishing change that had happened in the lives of these people. So they made others, perhaps merely out of a spirit of curiosity, go along to listen to the preaching that had produced such a result.
So the preaching of the gospel and the witness of Christian people combine together to present this message. These were the two great factors in the first century. They are also the two absolutely essential factors in our own century. But there is a third vital factor. The apostle puts it like this: “Our gospel came …” (v. 5). What is the message of the Christian church? Alas that one has to ask the question! But one must ask it because there are people in the world—one meets them constantly—who think that the message of the Christian church is nothing but a protest against the war in Vietnam. They think that is Christianity. That is what they hear on television and on radio. That is what they hear from the lips of so many popular preachers. They think that Christianity is a protest against that war and other wars, a protest against the bombs. It is always a negative protest, a political, social message. But, my dear friends, by definition that is not the gospel.
The Christian message is a gospel, and the word gospel means good news. And so you see at once that these other topics are not the Christian message. It is not good news to protest against a war. But the essential Christian message is the most thrilling good news that has ever come into the world. That is how these people in Thessalonica received it, and that is how others heard about it. They said to one another, “There’s an amazing message, a wonderful proclamation of great good news, a gospel!” And if what you and I preach and represent does not give people the impression that it is the most wonderful and glorious good news they have ever heard, then we are failing completely, and we are unworthy of the name Christian. “Our gospel”! Oh, let us never forget this. Let us be certain of the message.
Then Paul goes on to say this interesting thing: “Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also …” When the apostle says that the gospel did not come “in word only,” he means that it did come in word but not only in word. Is this clear to us, I wonder? Let me give you an illustration. A man may come to me and say, “I hear that you had a cold last week. Did you run a temperature as well?” He is saying that it is possible to have a cold without running a temperature but that you may have a cold with a temperature. So when Paul says, “Our gospel came not unto you in word only,” he means that it did come in word, but there was something in addition to the word.
Why do I take the trouble to emphasize this point? Here again it is something that one is compelled to do, for the popular teaching today, the preaching that gets the publicity and the applause, is the preaching that tells us that the gospel does not come in word or in words. Christianity, it is said, is a wonderful spirit that possesses a person. A slogan a few years ago put it like this: “Christianity is caught, not taught.” Yes, it is a marvelous spirit, a wonderful brotherhood with friendship, goodwill, and love to one another, a sort of “Christmas spirit.” And people say, “This is Christianity. The great trouble in the past has been that too many theologians have said, ‘It’s this and it isn’t that’ and have described it and defined it in words and insisted upon particular doctrines. But this is entirely wrong.” These people say, “Christianity is a quality of life—not so much a doctrine as a way of living.” Well, that view is a complete and utter denial of what the great apostle tells us here and everywhere else and of what, indeed, the whole Bible tells us. The gospel comes in word, in words. And if it does not, it is not a true gospel.
But what are these words in which the gospel must always come? In a most extraordinary manner, the apostle gives us a summary in the last two verses of this one little chapter. “For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” There are the words; so let us go in our imagination to listen to the apostle Paul preaching to these people in Thessalonica.
They were, pagans, not Jews. They had not been brought up with the Old Testament. They were polytheists, idolaters, and so on, living depraved lives, as we shall see. How did the apostle preach? What did he say to them? Here is the problem of communication, the problem of evangelism. These people were utterly without any knowledge of the terminology and of everything the apostle had to tell them. So what did he preach about? What is the Christian message? What are the words in which to convey it?
Paul started by telling the people about God. He writes in his epistle that they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” He said to them in effect, “You good people, you are worshiping your idols, and you don’t realize that you are doing something that’s foolish and utterly vain. What are your idols? They’re simply creatures that you’ve made yourselves.” In those days, as you know, they would carve gods out of wood or make them of stone or some precious metal. Then they would say, “You are my god.” And they would build a temple to their god. And then they would take their offerings and bow down and worship their god or gods. So Paul showed them the utter emptiness of this, that these gods were nothing but the projections of their own minds and imaginations, that they had no being, that they could not do anything. The people were just deluding and fooling themselves. This was idolatry!
We find this teaching also in the book of Acts. We find it in the Old Testament as well. The psalms deal with it in a very wonderful manner, full of divine sarcasm. Look at your gods, says the psalmist:
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: they have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: they have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them. (Ps. 115:5–8)
Idolatry! The apostle started with that. That was the kind of life led by the citizens of Thessalonica, and Paul showed them the utter emptiness and vacuity of it all. But he did not stop merely at denunciation. He pointed out the seriousness of all this. He said in essence, “What makes it serious is that while you have been worshipping the gods that you have made yourselves, you have not been worshipping the only true and living God. You have been worshipping lies. There is nothing there. You called lies truth, but they are lies. There is a true God. You have worshipped dumb idols, useless objects, but there is a living God.”
So the apostle began to tell these people about the God who had revealed himself to the children of Israel, the Jews. The God who had given a marvelous manifestation of himself in the Old Testament Scriptures is the true God. He is not a lie or a fabrication or the creation of the human mind. He is God from eternity to eternity, the author of all things, truth in himself, just and righteous and holy, the God who is “light, and in [whom] is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Yes, but he is also the living God. And so the apostle told them about how this God had created the world out of nothing. He told them about the first verse in the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The living God. The God who interferes in the lives of people. The God of history. The God of providence. Paul gave them an exposition of the great message of the Old Testament and said in effect, “You have been ignorant of this. That is why you have made your dumb idols and have worshipped them. But here is the truth: you have all been made by God. And that is why this is so serious. That is why it is vital to you. If you die as you are, in your ignorance, worshipping your idols, you will go to condemnation, to everlasting misery.”
The apostle talked about “the wrath to come” (v. 10). In other words, he told the people of Thessalonica that the God who had made the world had made man in his own image. He had given man certain powers and propensities. He had made him responsible. Paul told them that whether or not man realizes it, he has to give an account of himself to God—that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). And he told these people that this great God, the only true and living God, is going to judge the whole world, including them, and that they would be judged according to the law that he had given to his people—the Ten Commandments and the moral law. These are the standards by which they were going to be judged. And Paul told them of the wrath to come and the eternal destiny that was to follow this judgment. He preached the true and the living God and showed them that all this was vital to their present position and to their eternal destiny. That was how the apostle preached.
It is only when you and I return to such preaching that we will be truly able to engage the interest and the attention of modern men and women, for the world is full of idolatry. It does not always take the same form. We are not as crude as they were in Thessalonica. People no longer make their idols in that way. They make them into other shapes—the shape, for instance, of automobiles—and they worship them. Literally! I know many men whose gods are their cars. They are always talking about them. They spend most of their time cleaning them, getting them to look better than somebody else’s, often purchasing better models. They live for their cars. Others live for their houses. And I have known parents who literally worshipped their children. They thought about them, they schemed for them, they dreamed about them, they would sacrifice anything for their children. Their children were their gods. I have known wives who regarded their husbands as gods and husbands who regarded their wives as gods. They turned them into idols. The world is full of idolatry. Wealth. Sex. Prosperity. These are the things for which people are living. They are thrilled by them. They are moved by them. Their whole lives are governed by them. That is their religion. Those are their gods. The world is as full of idolatry today as it was in the first century. So what is needed is apostolic preaching that starts with the only true and living God, the one who is above all, the Judge of the ends of the earth and who tells us that everyone will have to stand before him.
“Well, dear me,” says someone, “I thought you took a little time just now to say that the message of the church is what you call ‘gospel,’ good news. It doesn’t sound very much like good news to me. You’re preaching wrath and judgment and terror. Is that good news?”
Of course not. But it is the introduction to the good news. And I have a feeling that the masses are outside the Christian church today because we inside it have forgotten the introduction. Let me solemnly remind you of this: the gospel of Jesus Christ does not start even with the love of Jesus Christ. It starts with God. It is no use going to people and saying, “Come to Jesus” or “Come to Christ.” They say, “We couldn’t care less.” Why? Because they have never seen any need of him. That is why they do not come to Christ. The only people who truly come to Christ are those who have seen their own condition under the condemnation of the law of God and know that one day they will face God in the eternal judgment, hearing the thunderings of Sinai. Knowing they will be confronted by the test, they realize they are utter and complete failures. Only such people are ready to listen to the gospel message concerning Jesus Christ and to fly to him as the only hope of salvation. The preaching of the message of the Christian church is a message that starts with God, the only true and living God. I say again that it is only as we realize our condition before God that we are ready to receive and to accept the message of the gospel.
What is the message of the gospel? We are familiar with it. This is where the church today starts, is it not, instead of starting with what the Puritans used to call a good “law work”? The trouble in the church today is that the law work has been neglected. There are too many people who have never repented. They do not know what repentance is. They have taken on Christ as a friend. They want to walk down the streets of life with heads erect. No, no! You must start with a law work. The law leads to the gospel, and there are no true conversions without a law work. You can bring people to religion, but that is very different from making Christians of them. But after they have heard the law, after they have seen their position, then comes the glorious gospel.
What, then, is the gospel? Here it is, in verse 10 of chapter 1: “And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus.” Having shown the people their terrible plight and predicament, the apostle began to tell them about Jesus. He told them about this man who had lived in Palestine. He told them about his extraordinary birth and then those quiet years when he just worked as a carpenter and how, at the age of thirty, he began to preach and the astonishing things that he did: his preaching, his understanding, and his miracles—Jesus. But who is Jesus? That is the question. People say, “The gospel doesn’t come in words; you mustn’t be theological; you don’t need doctrine.” But you cannot preach without it! The question is, who is Jesus? Was he only a man? If he was, we are all damned and hopeless. So who is Jesus? The apostle tells us here—“his Son from heaven.” This is the doctrine of the incarnation. I say again that you cannot preach the gospel without doctrine. The very beginning of the gospel is to say, “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5). Jesus Christ, Son of God, God and man, two natures in one person, unmixed, the person of Christ the Lord, attested by his miracles. Paul preached Jesus to them and told them who he was, that God had “visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). Jesus!
But then Paul went on to say that this Jesus “delivered us from the wrath to come.” This is more theology, I am afraid. You cannot get away from doctrine. If you do not know the truth about the Lord, you are not a Christian, my friend. But what is this statement about his having “delivered” us? It means that Jesus did not come into the world just to teach us how to save ourselves. He did not come merely to give us an example. Jesus came in order to “deliver” us, and he has done the one thing that is essential to bring about that deliverance. What is that? Oh, this was the great theme of the apostle: “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Cor. 5:19). God has taken our trespasses and imputed them to Christ, laid them upon him, made him to be sin, smote him, struck him: “We did esteem him stricken, smitten of God” (Isa. 53:4). This is the great doctrine of the atonement. You cannot be a Christian without this. You can be a pacifist, a Socialist, and many other things, but you cannot be a Christian. This is the essence of Christianity—that the Son of God came into the world in order to take our sins in his own body on the tree, in order to receive our punishment: “by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). This is what Paul preached to the Thessalonians. The theology of the atonement, the doctrine of the atonement, the substitution, the fulfillment of what John the Baptist said: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Christ dying on the cross, the innocent dying for the guilty, the good dying for the evil: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). And he died, and they laid him in a tomb.
Is that the end? No, no! “And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead” (1 Thess. 1:10). What is this? It is the doctrine of the resurrection. There is no gospel apart from the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let the clever scholars say what they will. Let them attempt to philosophize it away, as some were trying to do in Corinth so long ago. It all comes to nothing. We are saved by the fact that Christ literally rose from the dead, having accomplished the grand atonement. “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). You are then still in your sins, and you are under condemnation. “[Christ] was delivered for our offences,” says Paul to the Romans, “and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). The resurrection is God’s proclamation to the whole cosmos that the Son’s work is complete, that he finished it, that the law is satisfied, God is satisfied. The resurrection, the literal, physical resurrection, also gave the final proof that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Son of God: “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Here it is, the doctrine of the resurrection.
But Paul still was not finished! “… and to wait for his Son from heaven.” He not only rose from the dead, he ascended. Do you remember the ascension? The Lord Jesus Christ ascended, passed through the heavens, and took his seat at the right hand of God. And there he is, seated, “expecting till his enemies be made his footstool” (Heb. 10:13). But this is not the end. There is a day when he will come again: “to wait for his Son from heaven.” The Son of God will come back into the world, and he will come not for salvation this time but for judgment. He will not come as the babe of Bethlehem. He will come as the King of kings and the Lord of lords riding the clouds of heaven, and he will come to “judge the [whole] world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). He will destroy sin and evil and all that belong to that realm and will set up his glorious kingdom of righteousness and peace.
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
The whole universe will be restored to its pristine condition and, perhaps even more, will be glorified, and the Son will hand back the perfect kingdom to the Father, and God shall be all and in all. That was what Paul preached in Thessalonica. And you cannot do that in twenty minutes, can you? Christian people, if you object to the preaching of the gospel, you are denying the gospel. This is the message, and you must not leave out any part of it. The gospel comes in word, in words, and those were the words then, and they are still the words now.
But if I were to stop at that point, in a sense my preaching would be in vain. That alone does not account for the spread of the gospel and the rising of Christian churches in the first century or in any other century. The apostle writes, “Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (v. 5). Here is the whole secret not only of the apostle Paul but of all the great, true evangelists throughout the centuries. Here is the secret of the Protestant fathers, those Puritan preachers, Whitefield and the others in the eighteenth century. What does Paul mean by saying, “but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance”? To whom does the assurance apply?
In the first instance, the assurance applied to the apostle himself. “Do you know,” says Paul in effect, “when I was preaching to you at Thessalonica, I was not simply uttering words, but I knew I was clothed with the Holy Spirit. I knew that I was nothing but a little channel and a vehicle and that the Almighty God, the Holy Spirit, was using me and was driving my words to your minds and hearts and consciences. I did it with assurance. I knew!”
The position seemed hopeless. What was there for Paul to build on when preaching to these people who were so ignorant? They knew nothing. They had been living lives of debauchery and evil and sin and vileness. He describes this in so many places—in the second half of the first chapter of Romans, in 1 Corinthians 6, and so on. That is how they were living in this seaport town of Thessalonica. What did Paul have to go on? The Holy Spirit. He felt the power, and he had great assurance that he was being used. The apostle was so concerned about this that he described it in a little more detail in the next chapter.
As we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts. For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness: nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ. (1 Thess. 2:4–6)
Do you realize what the apostle Paul is saying? He never sought to please people. You cannot imagine the apostle Paul tripping lightly onto a platform and then cracking a few jokes just to put the audience right. The thing is unthinkable! It is insulting to the very name of the great apostle. He had no tricks. He had no methods, no manipulation of lights and music and other things in order to get people into the right condition to receive his message. No, no! He eschewed it all. “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:4). He knew all about Greek rhetoric and all the tricks of oratory. He dismissed them. He rejected them. He hated them. And here he repeats it again. He never used flattering words, never ingratiated himself with the audience. No, no! He was a herald of the gospel. He proclaimed the words of the message, and the Spirit was upon him. His total reliance was on the Spirit of the living God. He had assurance of it: “in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5). That has been the characteristic of the church and her preachers in every period of reformation and of revival, and there is no hope for us until we return to this. We must be fools for Christ’s sake and be willing to be laughed at and derided by the world as we trust to the message and the power of the Holy Spirit upon it.
But Paul says that the Holy Spirit was also working in the Christians in Thessalonica. And he must have been, for how could ignorant pagan people with no background have any connection with such a message? It was the Holy Spirit’s work. At first as they listened to the apostle, they did not know what he was talking about, but gradually they began to feel that he was speaking to them and that this was true. Something was gripping them. Something was moving them. One after another they said, “It’s right. It’s true of me.” And they were troubled and unhappy about themselves. They had never heard this before, but it became living and real. They were convinced and convicted. And they saw their terrible predicament. Then they heard this wonderful message of the gospel, and they believed it and they submitted to it. Paul says, “And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost” (v. 6).
But these Christian people also gave proof that they had really received the word of salvation and truly believed it. What was the evidence? In verse 9 Paul writes: “They themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” This is the test of whether or not we have received the message. Not that we come forward at the end of a meeting or sign a card and then wonder next day what we have done and in a few weeks find ourselves back where we were before. No, no! The evidence is this—that you leave your idols. You turn your back on them. You turn from idols to the living and the true God, and you begin to serve him, which means that you begin to worship him. He becomes the Lord of your life, and you live to his glory and to his praise. You now put into practice the answer to the first question of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.… serve the living and true God.”
And the Thessalonians gave further evidence: “Ye became followers of us”—they listened to the apostles, and they joined their company—“and of the Lord”—they became members of the Christian church (v. 6). And notice that this was not a kind of flash in the pan, nor was it just easy believism. “Remembering,” Paul says in verse 3, “without ceasing your work of faith”—“Faith, if it hath not works, is dead” (James 2:17)—“and labour of love, and patience of hope.” They did not stop; they went on and persisted and gave themselves to it. It became the biggest thing in their lives. This was their great characteristic. And, still more amazing, they “received the word in much affliction”—persecution, derision, sarcasm, and scorn, but it made no difference to them—“with joy of the Holy Ghost” (v. 6). You could do what you liked to these early Christians, but you would never make them deny the faith. You could ostracize them, it did not matter. You could put them to death, throw them to the lions in the arena, it made no difference. They persevered in spite of the affliction, in the affliction, “with joy of the Holy Ghost.” They did not give up. The result was, as Paul tells them, that they had become a phenomenon, and everybody was talking about them. Everybody in Thessalonica was talking about them. Everybody all the way through Macedonia and over the mountain ranges and down in Achaia, everybody everywhere in the then-known civilized world was talking about this phenomenon. And this is the only hope for us at this present time.
Come with me for a final visit to Thessalonica. Do you see that group of people standing there on the street corner? They are talking together about politics, the injustice of the Roman Empire, the imposition of taxes upon them, and so on, exactly as people do now. Then a man suddenly passes by, and one of the group says to another, “Do you recognize him?”
The other man looks and says, “No, I don’t know him.”
“Of course you do, that’s so-and-so.”
“Impossible!” They had always known the man as a drunkard, an adulterer, a wife beater, one of the worst men in Thessalonica. But here he is, entirely changed. His very appearance is different. His face is different. Everything about him is different. So the second man then asks, “What on earth has happened to him?”
“Well, you know,” says the first man, “he’s been like this ever since a man called Paul came here. You remember what he used to be like. But, you know, this strange little preacher came here with this extraordinary message, and when this man who used to be a drunkard heard it, he became absolutely different, and he’s been different ever since. He’s going now to what they call a prayer meeting, and he seems to be going constantly. He’s a new man. His wife is different too. His children are different. His home is different. I’ve never seen such a change in a man in my whole life. It’s amazing. It’s extraordinary.”
By now the curiosity of the second man is aroused.
Then a woman goes past, and the first man asks, “Do you recognize her?”
“I’ve no idea who she is.”
“Dear me,” says the first man, “that’s so-and-so.” And he mentions one of the worst women in the city, an adulteress, a woman who was never at home and who neglected her husband. Her children were in rags. She did not prepare the right food for them and neglected their health. She was a woman hardly worthy of the name of woman. But there she goes now, neatly dressed. And she is going to this same meeting, a prayer meeting or a preaching meeting. And, again, her home is changed, her children are different, her husband is different.
This is what was happening under the preaching of this gospel, which had come “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). These people had been born again. They were renewed. They were entirely changed. They were saints adorning the church of God.
Here is my question for you: Are you a phenomenon in the city where you live? Are you an object of wonder to your neighbors and associates? It is only when you and I, who are members of the church, are people like this and become phenomena, objects of conversation and of curiosity, that we shall begin to see revival and renewal in the church. Oh yes, the preaching, the Word, the only gospel, and the power of the Spirit upon it are all essential. But the proof of its truth is in the daily lives of the members of the church, people who claim to be Christians and who belong to the only true and living God. My dear friends, let us make certain of the message, but let us pray without ceasing that God shall send down his mighty Spirit of power upon us who have the privilege of preaching and upon all who listen. Let us pray for true spiritual awakening and revival, and let us do so until God in his infinite kindness and condescension shall be pleased to hear us and to open the windows of heaven again and send down such a shower of blessing that we shall scarcely be able to contain it. That is how Christianity spread in the first century. That is how it spread in every other century, and it is the only way in which it will spread in this century.
O Lord, our God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us especially, we pray again, for our folly, for foolish talking about our century and the modern man, as if anything has changed. Awaken us, we pray, and bring us to see that your method is still the same, that the truth remains unchanged and unchanging, and that the power of the blessed Holy Spirit is in no sense diminished. Lord, hear us. “Revive thy work, O Lord, thy mighty arm make bare. Speak with the voice that wakes the dead, and make thy people hear.” And unto you and unto you alone shall we give all the praise and the honor and the glory both now and forever. Amen.