A Model Church

This morning we start a new series, working through the apostle Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. Our passage is 1:1-7. Both of our two Bible readings this morning give examples of joy. There is the joy of that Palm Sunday crowd, waving Jesus into Jerusalem, joyfully praising God "for all the miracles they had seen", as Luke puts it. And no doubt with high hopes of more miracles to come. And then in 1 Thessalonians 1, we heard about the joy of the Christians in Thessalonica. The joy of the Palm Sunday crowd was short lived. It was quickly doused by the awful events of the following few days. But hard times did not quench the joy of the Thessalonian Christians. In fact their joy was born in suffering. Verse 6:

in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

We need to ask ourselves about our own experience of faith in Christ. Is ours fair weather faith, crowd following faith? Or is it faith founded on the rock of Christ, unshakeable, immoveable, however atrocious the spiritual climate? The situation in Thessalonica is one of faith standing firm under trial. This letter from Paul is written only a relatively short time after the church began, as a result of Paul's pioneering preaching of the gospel. It will be worthwhile, at the start of the series, to remind ourselves of what happened maybe a year or two before this letter was written. Why don't you turn back for a moment to Acts 17:1-10. Paul has just come from Philippi where he has been preaching, accompanied by Silas and a newly recruited member of the team, Timothy. In Philippi they had been flogged and imprisoned before being allowed to go free. From there they made their way to Thessalonica, which was the provincial capital of Macedonia. Acts 17:1 takes up the story:

When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ," he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. 5 But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9 Then they put Jason and the others on bail and let them go. 10 As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.

What happened next? Paul immediately started evangelising Berea. The Jews who had attacked him in Thessalonica heard about it. They travelled over to Berea to stir things up there. Paul moved on again, leaving Silas and Timothy behind. Paul made his way to Athens. While he was there, he instructed Silas and Timothy to go back to Thessalonica to see how the young church was doing under conditions of great pressure. Paul went on from Athens south to Corinth, where he stayed for a couple of years, planting a church there. Silas and Timothy met up with Paul again in Corinth and reported to him. In response to what he heard from them, Paul wrote a letter of encouragement to the Thessalonians. And this is it. Verse 1:

Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.

So this comes from the front line of Paul's missionary activity. It is an amazing window right into the minds and hearts of those engaged in spreading the gospel in those early years. The rioting in Thessalonica and the conversion of Jason and the others is fresh in Paul's mind. In this letter there is a glorious sense of excitement about what God is doing. There is also here a tender anxiety for the Thessalonians lest they lose sight of what they learned from Paul. He is all too aware of the pitfalls that they are facing as Satan tries to destroy the work of the work of the Holy Spirit. Timothy and Silas have just alerted Paul to some potential problems. Basically the news is very good. The church is faithful, and growing. Paul wants to make sure they stick with it. That is why he is writing. Glance over the page to 3:1-5 where Paul opens his heart to them:

So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God's fellow-worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no-one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. 4 In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 5 For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.

His letter is very positive, and it is full of encouragement. But that is not so that they will be able to pat themselves on the back. Paul is arming them for the struggles that lie ahead. Did you notice Paul's line of encouragement for new converts: "we kept telling you that we would be persecuted". No pessimism there. Just realism. The greatest struggle of those new Christians would be the battle with discouragement in the face of opposition and suffering. Persecution is nearly always easy to avoid. All you have to do is one of two things. Either keep quiet about Jesus and the gospel. Or compromise the gospel in order to remove its offence. Shut up or change your tune, and you can lead a quiet life. And the progress of the gospel will stop dead. No one will be converted. But stand firm in Christ and amazing things will happen. The first 7 verses of chapter 1 speak of three things, first, THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL; secondly, THE POWER OF FAITH; and thirdly, THE POWER OF EXAMPLE. Paul talks about all three of them as part of his strategy of encouragment. First, THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL Look at verse 4 and the first part of verse 5:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.

And then on to the second half of verse 6:

in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

The whole process of evangelism is compressed into those verses. This is the way God is gathering his people from every corner of the earth, and in every age. First century Macedonia, or Tyneside in 1998 - the process never changes. It is God himself who takes the initiative. The Father loves his people and determines to save them from condemnation. He sends his Son to die in their place and opens the way for them to be forgiven. He raises Jesus from the dead and sets him on the throne of heaven. He explains what he is doing to his spokesmen the apostles, not least Paul the apostle to the gentiles. He pours his Holy Spirit into their lives, transforming them from within, empowering them to live for him whatever the cost, convincing them in every fibre of their being that the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of the world. They are God's primary agents of evangelism. They define the gospel for all time, on God's authority. As the apostles proclaim the good news of Jesus, God pours out his Spirit on their hearers also, and transforms them from within, so that they believe that Jesus is indeed their Saviour and their King. And they give up their hard-hearted rebellion against God's rule, and find forgiveness and peace and an unquenchable joy. And they in turn begin to proclaim the gospel to others - God's secondary agents of evangelism, teaching the gospel defined once for all by the apostles. And so the ripples of salvation spread throughout the world and down the centuries. The gospel is communicated (verse 5):

with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.

If our evangelism is to be life-giving and effective, that is what it must have. God-given words, God-given power, and God-given conviction in our hearts. Evangelism without the work of the Holy Spirit is a contradiction in terms. That work must take place within the evangelist. But then it must also take place within the hearer. Verse 6:

in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

That is why Paul is so sure that God has set his love upon those Thessalonians and saved them. The gospel was proclaimed to them with truth, and power, and conviction. And they believed, and received Jesus, and rejoiced. That is the power of the gospel. It is all the work of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, THE POWER OF FAITH Verse 3:

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.

God-given faith in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus inevitably brings in its wake both love for others, and hope for the future. You cannot truly have one without the other two. Hopeless faith is no faith. Loveless faith is dead faith. So in this letter Paul's love for the Thessalonians, and their own love, shines out. 2:8:

We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.

3:6:

But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.

3:12:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

4:9:

Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.

And what is the nature of the hope which accompanies faith and love? It is a patient longing for the promised return of Jesus. The Thessalonians turned to God (verse 10):

to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

And again in 3:13:

May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

And 4:16:

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God

And 5:23:

May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.

This is a letter saturated with faith in what Christ has done in the past, love for others in the present, and hope in the Second Coming of Christ. Faith, hope, and love are the armour worn by the effective soldier of Christ. 5:8:

since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.

When those three are present in us, then our lives will have an impact for Christ. Because, as verse 3 says, faith produces work, love prompts labour, and hope inspires endurance. Paul and his team were a living example of that. 2:9:

Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

That is the power of faith at work. That also illustrates the third thing that is so clear from our passage Thirdly, THE POWER OF EXAMPLE The gospel, through faith, empowers us to become imitators. First, we become imitators of Jesus. His self-giving love becomes the pattern for our lives. Secondly, we become imitators of the apostles. The message they preached becomes our message. Their dedication to the gospel impresses itself on our lives. Verse 5:

You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord ...

Thirdly, we become imitators of other believers who are more mature than us, who have been in the battle longer than us. 2:14:

For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus

So the lives of other Christians, and of the apostles, and of Jesus himself make their impression on us. Their example becomes compelling to us. And then, in turn, by the grace of God, we can become an example to others. Verse 7:

And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.

And the tidal wave of the gospel spreads further and further. Nothing has changed in that regard. Let me give you an example from the other side of the world - from Cuba. Evangelical churches in Cuba are under great pressure today. In May 1995 pastor Orson Villa was arrested. That's three years ago - less time than between the riot Paul caused in Thessalonica and when he wrote this letter from Corinth. Pastor Villa had had 2000 gathering regularly at his home. The authorities warned him to stop the meetings. He said to them "I cannot stop that which God began. You go ahead and do what you have to do." His home was raided at dawn by several dozen police. He was jailed for nine months for failing to 'obey government orders'. His wife Naomi found another church nearby - run down, but legally registered. Soon the crowds were overwhelming. One of the walls of the inadequate building fell down. Instead of replacing it, the congregation has built four new walls at the edges of the plot of land, completely encompassing the old building, which they have now torn down. One of the Cuban evangelical pastors has summed up their attitude like this:

They can interrogate me, they can put me in prison, they can even kill me, but they can never shut me up.

I wonder if he's been reading 1 Thessalonians. The joy that produces that kind of boldness is not the fleeting joy of those first Palm Sunday pilgrims. It is the unquenchable joy of one whose life has the authentic stamp of the Holy Spirit upon it. Such is the impact of the gospel, communicated with truth and power and conviction. Such is the impact of a faith that works, allied to love that labours and hope that endures. Such is the impact of the example of those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

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