If you have been coming to the evening services over the past few weeks, you will realise that we have been following Paul's journey to Rome at the end of Acts. Now that journey has come to an end, and we are changing tack a bit – for the next few weeks we are looking at a letter written to a bunch of ordinary Christians. But before we start tonight, I'd like to tell you a story. A few years ago my friend and I were travelling in New Zealand and went to watch a cricket match. We bought our tickets on the day, so were sat amongst New Zealand fans. The England batsman Mike Atherton was batting in the first over and was clean bowled, so started walking away. The New Zealand fans went wild – up they stood – wahay! My friend and I, of course, stayed seated, disappointed. Seconds later everyone realised that it had been a no-ball which meant that Atherton was not actually out. All the fans sat down disappointed, while my friend and I leapt to our feet cheering. We got a few looks and jeers, and it was quite fun, but that was the end of it, or so we thought. That evening, we arrived back at the hostel where we were staying and the bar manager said "you were on national TV earlier – centre screen when you stood up - you guys are famous!". HA! We did not realise the impact that we had had, and the bar man needed to tell us! Well, tonight we are going to look at a group of people who also didn't know the impact that they had made, and needed someone to tell them.
Before we start, it is helpful to have some background to the letter.
This letter is written by Paul to the church at Thessalonica. We know a lot about the church at Thessalonica because Acts 17 tells of what happened to Paul and his friends there.
If you turn to Acts 17 in your bibles, I will highlight what happened. Paul was on his way around the Aegean Seaon his second missionary journey, and came to Thessalonica. The passage tells us that he preached in the synagogue over three weeks and a good number of people believed, many of them gentiles like us. But a large number of people did not believe, and they stirred up trouble for Paul and his companions. Even after Paul has been forced to leave Thessalonica in verse 10, the Thessalonian people were so angry about what Paul had said, that they came down to Berea, some 40 miles away to stir up trouble there, as we can see in verse 13.
What trouble makers!!
So we can imagine that Paul would have been worried about the believers amongst this hostile community. Had they folded under the pressure of the persecution? He sends Timothy to find out, and looking forward to chapter 3:6 we can see the reason for this letter of Paul's:
But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you.
Great news! And in response to this, Paul writes the letter. Because it is written while he still on his journeys, it is widely regarded as the first letter written by Paul in the bible. It is dated at about AD 50. Remember that Thessalonica itself was on a key trade route and was capital of Macedonia, which is essentially the Northern part of modern day Greece. It was therefore urban, and not unlike where we are here in Gateshead.
But before we look at what Paul writes, will you be honest with yourselves for a minute? How many of you ever feel like your faith, lived out in urban Gateshead in your workplace, or at home, or in your school, is not really making a difference to this world. How many of you feel that you are not spreading the gospel as you should. How many of you feel that God is simply not working through you. I regularly feel like this. Many of you know that we are intending to do some full time Christian work. Now I am going to be honest with you for a moment. Occasionally I wonder whether doing this work is frustration driven: the gospel is NOT being spread through me in my every day work. No one cares what I believe. If I make this change then I will be effective and will see the results of my faith and outreach. So we have to keep coming back to our original calling – we are not doing this because we are results driven. We have to remember that we are going out of love and obedience. Do you feel frustrated like this? "The gospel is just not spreading through me." Therefore I imagine the Thessalonians also did: so let's learn what Paul has to say to them, a fairly ordinary bunch of believers living in the first century. Essentially I think the message is simple – "Be encouraged! You are having an impact! The gospel is spreading because of YOUR faith." To headline the lessons which we can glean from these verses, we can say:
The gospel spreads through Holy Spirit inspired gospel fruit.
Firstly we'll look at what gospel fruit is and where it comes from, then we'll see what the Holy Spirit does in the process, and finally we'll see how the gospel spreads as a result of this. I've broken this down into three headings but remember the main message – the gospel spreads through Holy Spirit inspired gospel fruit. The Thessalonians exhibited gospel fruit because of their genuine Christianity, and therefore, by the Holy Spirit, the gospel was spread (and still is being spread!!!). Here are 3 main points of how we get there: Gospel fruit comes from genuine Christianity (v.1-3) It is God who converts and preserves through his Holy Spirit, evidenced by gospel fruit (v.4-6) The gospel spreads when lives are changed (v.7-10)
If you're not there already, turn forward in your bibles to page 835, 1 Thessalonians 1.
Firstly I want us to see that Gospel fruit comes from genuine Christianity. Look at v.1-3
Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is clearly impressed with the Thessalonians. He gives thanks for all of them, and the reasons why he gives thanks are listed. Throughout the rest of the letter there is nothing which suggests that the Thessalonians are not living out a genuine Christian life. But what is genuine Christianity? I think a great summary is here contained: it is sometimes called the triad of a Christian life: Faith, Love and hope; all in the Lord Jesus Christ. You may remember this from our recent studies in Corinthians. Faith, hope and love. Slightly different order, but the same things. Paul is really keen that we understand a genuine Christian life as these three attributes. Faith in God and what he did in his atoning sacrifice on the cross, love for God and for one another here and now, and a hope which looks forward to Christ's second coming. Past present future. This is a genuine Christian life. But Paul is saying a little more here too – Gospel fruit comes from genuine Christianity. What does this mean?
Throughout the bible we are told that good trees bear good fruit, and bad trees bear bad fruit. One example which you may like to look up is Luke 6:43-44 . Gospel "fruit" is the outworking of our faith in practical ways. If you like, it is the visible parts of what goes on inside our hearts. Just like an apple tree produces apples, and a pear tree, pears, so our Christian beliefs produce fruit which you can recognise a Christian by. If you take a look at the person sitting next to you, it is difficult to see faith as such, because it is internal, but you can see the FRUIT which that faith exhibits. Let's play a little game: who can tell me what sort of tree this is: (empty apple tree). Now who can tell me what sort of tree this is? I'll give you a little clue – those red things are APPLES. (Pic of Full apple tree). Who can tell me what sort of person this is? (Picture of Dad normal). Yes he looks quite a nice chap – is he a Christian or non Christian? Can't say…Now who can tell me what sort of person this is? (Picture of Dad gardening at church.) Another clue, this is the same person cutting the hedge in a churchyard in his own time with no pay. Christian or non Christian? A Christian! Work is a fruit of faith.
So what is that fruit which Paul suggests should be visible from genuine Christianity? Well, he suggests that each core part of genuine Christianity has a correlating fruit. I think that it is important to say here that these fruits are probably not the ONLY fruits of our Christianity, and certainly there may be a "Thessalonian" emphasis here. But they are good testers for us. If we look at ourselves and see these, then we can start to think that we have genuine Christianity.
The first of these is WORK produced by faith (as we saw with my dad), then LABOUR prompted by love, and thirdly ENDURANCE inspired by hope.
Let's have a look at each in turn: work produced by faith. Our faith in God should result in us giving ourselves to Christian acts of service. So helping with Sunday school, or leading home group, or doing a job at church, or serving teas and coffees. There is plenty of opportunity to express that faith here at HTG, but remember this is evidence of the aim, NOT the aim itself: just signing up for things without the faith is a dangerous short cut.
Work and labour sound similar, but labour seems to refer to paid work. Someone said that they are intending to work an extra shift every so often so that they can give to our mission fund. This is love in action. Later in these letters Paul comes down hard on people who DO NOT work out of laziness. I think, therefore, he is saying, if you genuinely love one another, you will work hard at your job or studies. Again this marks out genuine Christianity – you work hard, even if taking the dole or cheating in exams ends up better. It doesn't make sense economically, but it is the fruit of genuine Christianity.
Endurance would have had particular resonance with the Thessalonians in their antagonistic surroundings. But it is just as important now. What keeps you going in difficult times? Two weeks ago during the evening service Anna shared how she kept going despite difficult circumstances because of her hope in what is to come. She was able to endure. Believe me in my job as a GP I see plenty of non Christians who simply do not endure in life. They have no hope – what surprise that they cannot endure. See the bigger picture. Keep going.
So again, we see that gospel fruit comes from genuine Christianity. This is plain and simple logic. Let's go back to our picture: If you take a genuine apple seed and plant it in your garden, it will become an apple tree and produce what? APPLES. If you take a pear seed you will get what? PEARS; if you take a plum seed you will get what? PLUMS! If you take a genuine Christian you will get GOSPEL FRUIT – work, labour and endurance. If you don't get the fruit, that person may need to have a close look at their beliefs and their heart.
So faith, love and hope. And remember our main message– this gospel fruit results in the spread of the gospel, through the Holy Spirit's inspiration.
So now we're moving onto point 2 and we are going to see how God is in control by his Holy Spirit.
It is God who converts and preserves through his Holy Spirit, evidenced by gospel fruit (v.4-6).
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 deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 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.
We can see that the Thessalonians became Christians because God chose them. Look at verse 4. God chose them. The evidence of this was the Holy Spirit coming along with their preaching. This is really important. The word is absolutely vital – Paul is not saying that the word is any less important – but what he is saying is that it is a powerful word. The three phrases here may present a little confusion – is power something OTHER than the Holy Spirit? And whose deep conviction is this?
Firstly, power and the Holy Spirit. What's what? Well, looking at Paul's structure in the original and some help from commentaries, I think that it is power that is the main emphasis here. It is up front in the sentence and so the emphasis lies there. Paul mentions the Holy Spirit next because this power IS the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is placed after the POWER in the sentence to show that it is He who IS that power. So it could read "our gospel came to you not simply with words, but with power, that is the Holy Spirit with deep conviction."
So how about The deep conviction? I could be understood as "assurance" or even "convincing" here. And I think this refers to both Paul AND the Thessalonians. In other words, BOTH the Thessalonians AND Paul were fully convinced as the message was brought, again by the Holy Spirit. This is backed up by verse 6 – have a look – the Holy Spirit is mentioned again – it is He who convinced the Thessalonians and also gave them joy. So the joy is not some sort of self-induced happiness because we know that "it will all be alright in the end", said through gritted teeth. This is a supernatural gift from the Holy Spirit. Similarly all that we have said so far, is supernatural. We don't do teas and coffees, or lead Sunday school because we naturally want to. We don't even do it, or we shouldn't do it, because there are gaps and we feel that we should. No, this is from the Holy Spirit – He gives us the fruits of our faith, and puts desire in our hearts. It does not make it easy, but without him we WOULD NOT BE DOING THESE THINGS.
Again we see gospel fruit – joy in the midst of suffering is a sure sign of genuine faith. I heard it said recently by a preacher, and have repeated to a few of my Christian patients – suffering for a non-Christian is completely pointless and miserable. But for Christians it ALWAYS has a purpose. I'll repeat that because it is important: – suffering for a non-Christian is pointless and miserable. But for Christians it ALWAYS has a purpose. What better way to have joy through your suffering – you know that there is a PURPOSE to it. This suffering is a huge part of the Thessalonians life. Think back to that Acts passage – the type of people around were the type who chased Paul and his friends miles down the road. But remember, we cannot produce joy by knowledge alone, the Spirit gives it.
So we have seen that it is the Spirit who is producing the fruit from our Christianity. What then happens? The gospel is spread: remember our headline: The gospel spreads through Holy Spirit inspired gospel fruit. We now know what Holy Spirit inspired gospel fruit is. What is the result of this? The result is that the gospel spreads.
And this is point 3.
The gospel spreads when lives are changed.
Read with me verses 7-10:
And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell 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 rescues us from the coming wrath.
Now we are really seeing exciting things! The faith of the Thessalonians was being spread far and wide. I think this is one of the main things that Paul wanted to tell the Thessalonians. We can see that he is overjoyed that the Thessalonians are standing firm from Timothy's report in 3:6,7. But Paul also has news for them – "hey chaps! Your faith is actually being reported all over the place." This is a great example of Paul's to follow – if we see the results of someone's work for Christ, then tell them! Of course they knew of their conversion, but Paul was telling them something new here. You guys are famous!! But note what it is that they are famous for… is it how many people they have led to Christ? Is it their terrific preaching? Is it their amazing new bible college? No, They are famous because of their conversion. Not only famous, but they have also become a model to other believers. This is a wonderful vision – Paul imitated Christ, the Thessalonians imitated Paul, and now all the churches in Macedonia and Achaia are imitating the Thessalonians. But the next verse makes an even stronger assertion – their faith has become known EVERYWHERE! This seems to have been ABOUT their faith, but it would be ridiculous if the actual object of their faith was not being accepted – I think it is reasonable to say that many people were coming to faith when they heard of the Thessalonians journey and life. But what WAS the story of the conversion of the Thessalonians? Which message was it which was causing such a stir "everywhere"? Again, not their super facilities or anything else. Essentially, it was their testimony. It is worth dwelling on the story of the Thessalonians. Just look more closely at v.9B and 10:
They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait from his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
They turned, they served, they waited. Past, Present, Future. Again. Like Faith love and hope. Really simple. Nothing flash – just genuine Christianity.
Let's break that down: they turned from idols. The idols may well have been physical lifeless forms which they had in their homes. Whatever they were, the Thessalonians left them behind and turned to God – we also need to do this when we become believers, though our idols nowadays may be more subtle – perhaps valuing money, security or family above Jesus.
They served the living and true God. I think we have seen what this looks like earlier. Living and true God emphasises that the idols were dead, whereas God is alive.
Finally they waited for the second coming. Note here a couple of things: the focus is on Jesus, whom God raised from the dead. This is the centre of their and our faith – a belief in Jesus' death and resurrection. This is very important for us. And if this is something which you do not know much about, then speak to one of us afterwards. God raised Christ from the dead.
And finally, just a hint of what is to come in the rest of these two letters. Paul states that Jesus rescues us from the wrath to come. The Thessalonians have an issue with the second coming, and Paul puts it here in his introduction. There will be plenty more about that in the weeks to come, but the fact is true: all of us are headed for wrath, all of us are headed for hell – an everlasting torment of suffering and pain and utter despair. Our only hope: Jesus. HE is our rescuer and saviour. And him only.
This is a great summary of faith journey – they turned, they served, they waited. Is this us?
The application of this final section is clear. What is it that people read worldwide? People don't buy encyclopaedias every day, but most of our population buy a NEWSPAPER every single day. Life stories sell. The Thessalonian life story was the thing which spread the gospel. And in the same way, our testimonies can be extremely powerful. We also have turned from idols and old ways, we also serve Jesus here and now. And we are also waiting for Jesus' second coming. Our testimonies are powerful.
We have been listening to people's testimonies on Sunday nights recently and I don't know about you, but I find them so encouraging. If we had new people coming into church, then I think they would have been moved by Anna's story, or what TJ had to say, or Laurel's journey. But in one sense, we need our testimonies out THERE, as well as in HERE. We ALL have stories of how we came to faith. We may THINK them dull and routine, but we are not thinking – every life is a miracle. TELL your testimony. People often find doctrine and sermons DULL, people always find stories FASCINATING and ENGAGING. You might tell me that it wasn't actually the Thessalonians who were telling their own testimony but someone else was. So tell other people's testimonies as well! Perhaps stories of Christians who excel in suffering – the story of the Chinese church is a great example.
So returning to our original point, do you ever feel like your faith, lived out in urban Gateshead, is not really making a difference to this world? Paul's answer from this passage is: it certainly can do. In the power of the Spirit, be faithful, live a true life of faith, love and hope; In the power of the Spirit exhibit gospel fruit of work, labour, endurance and joy. In the power of the Spirit, tell your testimony of how you turned, serve and wait. And the gospel will spread, with the power of the Holy Spirit.