1-2 Thessalonians • Sermon • Submitted
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Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 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. 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, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 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. 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, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Sermon: Model Believers
Tonight, I’m beginning a series on 1 and 2 Thessalonians. We’ve heard the end of 1 Thessalonians 4 and the beginning of chapter 5 when I preached on the Last Judgment. Pastor Gorter preached on the rest of chapter 5 back in March when we looked at church leaders. And I preached on most of 2 Thessalonians 3 at the Labor Day combined service. So, I’m not going to repeat those texts, but I’ll fill in what we haven’t read yet.
Some background on these letters. They were originally written to the Christians in the city of Thessalonica. Thessalonica is about 600 miles as the crow flies west northwest of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where Israel was. Back then, it was a very important port city and a center of civilization in Macedonia. It is believed that 100,000 to 200,000 people lived there at that time, so possibly around the number of people living in Sioux Falls. Today, Thessalonica or Thessaloniki has continued to grow, and it is located in northern Greece.
Even though it was far from Israel, Thessalonica wasn’t home to just Gentiles. We find in Acts 17 that there must have been a sizable enough community of Jews, because there was a synagogue here. Paul went to Macedonia, you might remember in Acts 16, after he was “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia [and] the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them [to enter Mysia.] During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” After Paul saw the vision, he and his companions concluded that God was calling them to preach the gospel to the Macedonians.
When they arrived in Thessalonica, over the course of three Sabbaths, Paul and Silas went and reasoned from Scripture about Jesus. Some Jews, many Greeks, and some leading women were converted. But that’s not the end of it; we’re told in Acts 17:5 and following, “The Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house.” Jason was a man who had welcomed Paul and Silas. The riotous mob went there, searched for Paul and Silas, but did not find them. So “they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city council…the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.” If you need more evidence beyond the mob that shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion, here is some more showing that evangelism and sharing the Christian gospel can cause problems.
Acts 17 verse 10 and following tell us this, “As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness.” But those ignoble Thessalonians weren’t done yet. “When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea.” Thessalonica as a city was a rough place with rough people, rough religious people, which may factor into how Paul wrote to the believers in Jesus, who we hear about now.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, one of the values that has been passed down through the Reformed tradition is living life with excellence. If we’re going to do something, we want to do it well. If we feel we can’t do that, then we don’t even offer ourselves. That can show up in our jobs—we work hard, and we finish what we begin. It likely inspires in many a passion for citizenship. We want to be good citizens of our communities, our states, and our nation. We want to be the best Americans, the strongest supporters we can be of this country, her workers, her leaders, and her military. It’s in our willingness or unwillingness to serve on different boards or committees as well as volunteering to teach, pray, or visit. Connected to this is that we don’t want to bring unnecessary shame on our families, churches, or any other group of people we represent.
If you have that mindset, which I think many of us who are a little bit older or who have grown up in traditional CRC and RCA congregations do, it can be very hard to wrap our minds around a different mindset, especially one that seems to conflict with it. The mindset or values of younger generations—my own, maybe a bit older, and definitely younger are being shaped in the mentality of “try things” and “failure is okay.” If we have grown up and lived the majority of our lives in a “pursuing excellence” mindset, this other way of thinking can be difficult to accept. We may think that with this, a person cannot pursue excellence and do things the best way, do them the way that we feel they should be done, especially when it comes to things directly related to faith and worshiping God. Trying doesn’t seem like pursuing excellence; it makes sense to stick to the old seemingly tried and true models.
One way that we might see that is with programs in the church. Programs like Cadets and GEMS, Sunday School, different Bible studies and societies can last a long time. As much as you and I might love a great program, a program that is well-intended to nurture faith, it’s not always the case that they continue on because they’re meaningful to the whole church anymore. In a number of churches, these kinds of program are held on to because in the past, they were successful. If a program fails or participation decreases, it’s not the program’s fault or those involved, but the lack of participation by those who should be involved. Yet that group, the should-be-involved-folks may have a different life, a different schedule, or a different perspective.
I think no matter what group we end up in—pursue excellence or bust, enjoy things that are done well but being willing to try new things, or only going after the newest trend or fad—we all have models. We all have people or churches or teams or businesses or schools that have done or are doing things a certain way and we desire to copy them or implement what they do. Sometimes we can be disappointed when our ideas don’t live up to our models, but other times, models can be really good—they can represent excellence that should be imitated.
Based on this letter’s opening, the Thessalonian believers were that kind of model believers, model Christians. Our first point tonight is looking at what does that mean? It means they were people who ought to be imitated. This is what Paul is saying in verses 6 through 8, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” So, the apostles and evangelists to the Thessalonian church along, of course, with Jesus had previously been the model for them. But Paul continues, “And so you became a model to all believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” So, their faith and the testimony of their lives had an impact not just for one another or even just in their city, but to others seeking God in the surrounding region. But Paul continues, “The Lord’s message rang out from not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.”
What an encouragement! As I told you about the background of the city of Thessalonica and how Paul was received there before, we might not expect much good to come out of such a place; perhaps the gospel will just simmer there. Yet Paul, Silas, and Timothy can testify that God did a great work and these people were not keeping the faith just in their small region, but they had become a model for the world.
We have to keep in mind, this is not just the typical treatment of churches back then as we find in the New Testament letters. Paul called the Galatians, “foolish,” and the Corinthians he rebuked as not actually having the Lord’s Supper because of the way that they practiced it. Titus confirms that Cretans were “always liars, evil brutes, [and] lazy gluttons.” The letters in the book of Revelation address the Ephesians as having forsaken their first love, the Philadelphians as having little strength, the Laodiceans as being lukewarm and about to be spit out. It was not a given that all churches receive praise for being models, but the Thessalonians were.
What made them models, though? For that we look back to verses 3 through 5, and I’m going to highlight verse 3. “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers, loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” The Thessalonian Christians were likely models, in part, because of their powerful conversion. A work of God had taken them from being followers of idols to being servants of the living and true God. People could recognize the change in their spiritual beliefs. But the modeling that Paul refers to appears more in how they lived. Back to that trio in verse 3: work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, endurance inspired by hope.
The Christian life wasn’t just something in their heads or in their congregations, but it appears to have been what they did all the time. Their faith produced or led them to do things, to be active. Their love prompted them to toil, to labor even when difficult. Their hope inspired them to persevere. Paul seems to relate this to hardship, to persecution, that their lives were not easy—just as he suffered, and Jesus suffered, they might have too, but they stuck with it.
I’ve shared accounts with you before about Christians in different areas of the world today, who are persecuted for their faith. Men and women, boys and girls whose lives are literally in danger because they carry a Bible, because they meet in groups to sing and hear the word preached. As humans, hearing about hardship can inspire us to be more dedicated, to check our own resilience. The Christian faith does not give us an easy road, a simple life without any pain or turmoil. Models can be encouraged, but they also can encourage us.
I want us to look a little deeper at that. This is our second point: What role should other believers as models serve in the Christian life? In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul writes, “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as men.” He goes on drawing comparisons between his and the apostles’ lives and the lives of other Christians. Why did he do that? Well, he writes in verses 14 through 16, “I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me.” In 1 Corinthians 11:1, he pleads with them to follow his example, “as I follow the example of Christ.”
We can look at other Christians as models for our own lives, because as Thomas Constable writes, “A new Christian first looks to other believers as his pattern, but then as he matures he realizes that Jesus Christ is his best ‘model.’” A new believer, a young or growing believer wants to pursue the joy that they see in other Christians. They see something different from their current lives with how the mature believer lives and acts and talks—and they desire to mimic that. That is one role that a Christian can have towards another, that we put on display our faith, just as the Thessalonians were doing. But at the end of the day, we must recognize, whether we are the imitators or the ones being imitated, the basis for our modeling is not just another human, but it must be Jesus Christ.
In Ephesians 4 and 5, Paul called the Ephesians out of darkness to be imitators of God. Likewise, in 1 Peter 2 verses 21 through 25, Peter writes, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Our best actions as sinful human beings are pointless, insofar as they don’t lead to salvation on their own. The Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 24 is a great help here. You can see the questions and answers on the back of your handout developing how we are to understand our good works. I’ll just read them for us. Question 62, Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness? Because the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin. Question 63, How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next? This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace. And question 64, But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked? No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.
All the encouragement that Paul gave to the Thessalonians, all the tough love and nice love that we find written to different churches throughout the New Testament, is intended to direct believers back to the Savior, to the Head of the Church, to Jesus. To look on his life and the obedience he showed, perfect righteousness, and that we would become, as much as possible with the help of the Holy Spirit, imitators of him. We live that way, not to merit anything, but in gratitude to God because we love him.
I’ll close by asking the question, are we model believers? Or if we are to be, what would that look like? Perhaps God is calling us to simply be models in Harrison and Corsica and our little area, but if he were calling us to be models for Christians across this nation and for “everywhere,” what would that look like? Would things change in how we, individually, live and act and talk? What are the parts of our tradition, the way we’ve long done things, that imitate Christ and must be kept? And then, how can we show Christ to people in new ways today? Brothers and sisters, let us always be sure to give praise to God when others are blessed through our work, and let us always pay attention to how the Holy Spirit is leading us as believers. Amen.