READ : 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10
It’s easy to be critical of our churches, but what does a church look like when it is really being what the church is supposed to be? First Thessalonians 1 shows us.
Have you ever heard the old Groucho Marx line that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club
that would have him as a member? I’ve often been tempted to use that about myself. I
wouldn’t want to belong to a church that would have me as a member. But what would a
really good church look like? What sort of members would it have? One place to answer
that, I think, in the New Testament, is in Paul’s letters to the church in Thessalonica,
First and Second Thessalonians. This was a church to be proud of. It was the church the
apostle himself had founded during the course of his second missionary journey. Paul, you
may recall from the book of Acts, had a vision in the night that called him to go over to
Macedonia to northern Greece and so he left Asia (or western Turkey today) and sailed
across to Philippi. There after running into trouble and being imprisoned and beaten, Paul
and his companions went to the next city along the major Roman highway, Thessalonica. And
we read what happened there in Acts chapter 17.
And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them
from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer
and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ,
the Messiah.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great
many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous,
and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar,
and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they
could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers and sisters before the
city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come
So Paul and his friends are sent quickly out of the city by the leaders of the church
in an attempt to defuse this situation. And writing now some months later, probably from
the city of Corinth further south in Greece, Paul wants to know what’s happening in
Thessalonica. He begins by thanksgiving to God for what he knows about them, what he knows
to be true. Even though he only was able to spend three brief weeks in ministry there, he
saw the gospel take root in that place and a church come together.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful if it were just that easy all the time to plant a church?
Three weeks, and suddenly there’s a congregation! But God had done much work preparing
people. There was of course the synagogue where Paul started where many devout Jews were
persuaded that Jesus was the Messiah. And then there was a whole host of Greeks who would
have been attracted to the teaching of Israel’s God and the Hebrew Scriptures. And they
too became believers. So listen to how Paul begins his first letter to the Thessalonians.
This is chapter 1, beginning at verse 2:
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 and sisters 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.
You know, it’s often easy to be negative about our churches as well as about ourselves.
But here’s a church to be proud of. Notice how Paul gives thanks for them and what he
thanks God for. He mentions the great trio of Christian virtues: their faith, their hope,
and their love. “Their work of faith, and labor of love,” he writes, “and the
steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” So they believed in the gospel. They had
a life-transforming encounter with the message about Jesus Christ. They accepted it, and
then they rejoiced because they had hope in Christ, even though it brought suffering, even
though immediately a riot broke out and there was all kinds of trouble and disruptions.
Still they had joy that comes from hope in Jesus Christ. Joy and hope are intimately
linked. If you have hope, you can rejoice even in the midst of bad circumstances.
And finally, their love. Paul says they loved and cared for each other and for the
world and it was a love that labored, that worked. It wasn’t just merely sentiment or
feeling, but it transformed their behavior. Paul goes on in verse 4 to make an affirmation
about them. First thanksgiving, then affirmation. “Brothers and sisters, loved by God,” he
writes, “we know that God has chosen you.” Have you ever wondered about that — if God
has chosen you? Sometimes people can tie themselves into knots worrying about that. It’s a
deep question. But here’s the answer, the simple answer. You can know that God has chosen
you if you believe in Jesus Christ. You can be sure that God loves you. We often affirm
that, don’t we? We say, “God loves you and so do I.” But is it mere assertion? No. There
is a way of being sure of the love of God and being confident that he has chosen you for
salvation. It’s not some supernatural revelation. It’s not a special sign or experience
necessarily. It’s simply the change in your life that Christian faith makes. It’s your
attitude toward the gospel, toward the person and work of Christ. This is the evidence
that Paul cites. Listen again to what he says,
We know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our
gospel came to you not just in word, but in power and . . . and with full conviction.
It’s the evidence that Paul saw in their changed lives, change brought about by the
gospel that gave him the confidence they did belong to God, that God had chosen them. He
points to their beliefs, first of all. The gospel came to them not just in words but in
real power. You know, the message of the Christian faith doesn’t have anything that
commends it to human wisdom. In fact, Paul could say famously in another place that the
gospel is foolishness to the Greeks. As far as the wisdom of worldly people is concerned,
this message is nonsense. It isn’t natural to believe it. It’s the power of God working
through his Spirit that brings us to faith in Jesus Christ. And so, if you want to know
“Does God love me?” ask a simple question, “What do you think about Jesus? Do you believe
in him?” Then that’s a sure sign that God is at work in you.
Beyond this, Paul also points at greater length to the evidence of their changed lives.
They were converted. “You turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God,” Paul
says. They became obedient to the Lord, to his law, to his Word. You became imitators of
us and of the Lord even though that obedience was costly. Their lives were transformed, in
other words. They became different people. They started to live like Jesus. That’s the
story. That’s the evidence. Did you catch that line from the story I read out of Acts 17?
When the Christians were brought before the authorities, the complaint against them went
like this: These men who have turned the world upside down now have come here too. That’s
always the charge that’s leveled against Christians. And it’s true. The gospel does turn
things upside down. It turns the world’s values on their head. It changes priorities
upside down. It turns our behavior backwards and forwards. “Love your enemies,” Jesus
says, “Pray for those who despitefully use you.”
Finally, Paul can point to the example that they have become of faith in Jesus Christ.
“Your faith in God has gone forth everywhere,” he writes. All through Greece, I don’t have
to say a word about you. Everybody knows what’s happened among those Christians in
Thessalonica. You know, you don’t really need to market your church if its members are
living transformed lives like this.
And last of all, Paul can point to their witness. “The Word of the Lord has sounded
forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia.” They have become an evangelizing church, a
missionary church, a sounding board for the gospel. I love that image of a sounding board,
a kind of echo chamber that amplifies the voice of this church in Thessalonica. I think,
for example, of a violin. If you stretch a string taut, and then make it vibrate with a
bow, you don’t get much of a result. But stretch it over a hollow box of wood beautifully
crafted and carefully tuned and the music will fill the hall with its beauty. That’s how
it was with this church and the gospel. They had become a sounding board so the word of
God could go forth throughout the world. You know, that’s the kind of church a pastor
could not only be thankful for but proud of. And just think, it all happened in three
So, I wonder, is my church the kind of place Paul would have been proud to have
pastored? Am I the kind of Christian that would make my church that kind of place? The
answer is going to be found in our lives, friends, in our obedience, joy, faith, hope,
love, witness. So take an honest look at yourself. Is following Jesus the most important
thing in your life? Even if, like me, you don’t always do as well as you would wish, are
you a sounding board for the gospel? So that others will hear, or perhaps more
importantly, will see the love of Christ in your life? It’s not all that complicated. It’s
just really really important.