Sermon preached on 1 Thessalonians by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/10/2011 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Thessalonians 1
“You Became Examples… To All Who Believe”
After our morning service we have our annual “Church BBQ and Open House.” And so in the event we have any visitors today in our worship service, I wanted to bring us a basic message today about the Christian faith. In the event that we have some among us today that are not followers of Jesus, I wanted to share a basic message today about the gospel and what it looks like to respond to the gospel as a Christian. And that’s what this passage contains. It gives a brief description of the gospel. But it especially describes what a response to the gospel should look like. You see, Paul, along with Silvanus and Timothy, is writing a letter to the Thessalonians. He starts off with telling them how he has been thanking God for them. But he tells them why – because of how they have so wonderfully responded to the gospel. In verse 7 he says that they have had an exemplary response. Literally, their response is an example, a model, a pattern, of what sort of response someone should have to the gospel. And so that’s what we’ll look at today in this passage. We’ll first look at how Paul briefly summarizes the gospel here – putting it in terms of Christ’s rescue plan. Second, we’ll reflect on all the commendable ways that the Thessalonians responded to the gospel.
And this will be something helpful for all of us to consider today. If you are a Christian here today, this will be a reminder of what our Christian life should look like. We should all want to live exemplary Christian lives. This passage reminds us of what that looks like. And if you are an unbeliever here today, this will give you a chance to consider the claims of Christianity. To actually hear what the Bible says the gospel is. And to see what the biblical response to the gospel looks like.
Well, let’s begin with a summary of the gospel. In verse 5, Paul mentions that that’s what they had brought to the Thessalonians. They brought the gospel to them. That’s the context for this whole chapter. When he talks about their commendable response, he’s talking about how they responded to the gospel message they brought to them. In verse 5, Paul even talks about this initial delivery of the gospel to them. He says that it didn’t come just in words. Let me stop right there. The gospel is fundamentally something delivered with words. The gospel simply means “good news”. It’s a message of good news. You usually give a message with words. The initial preaching to them involved the words of the gospel being given to them. But Paul says that’s not all what happened. In verse 5, he says that these words came also with power, and the Holy Spirit, and much assurance. In other words, when the gospel was preached to them, it went forth boldly and effectively. Some have thought the power referenced here might refer to miracles that took place. That’s possible – we know lots of miracles were taking place at the inception of the New Testament church through the apostles’ ministry. And yet what seems most in reference here is to say that the preaching came along with a work of the God’s Spirit. A work that made the message believable to the Thessalonians. A power that made that gospel message be believed and then lived out. In other words, the power of the Holy Spirit was at work when the word was preached so that it really took root in those people’s lives. That’s why Paul can thank God here for how they are responding. God was responsible for making the gospel really take root in their lives, by the Holy Spirit.
So what then is the gospel? What’s this message they told them? Well, it’s not given in a lot of detail here; Paul refers back to when he did first share the gospel with them. And yet Paul does summarize it again for us in verse 10. It’s a brief summary, but it’s right on. Look at verse 10. It talks about Jesus, the Son of God. It says there that Jesus was raised from the dead, and delivers us from the wrath to come. That’s a very short summary of the gospel. Some verses in the New Testament give us longer summaries, some give us shorter ones. But here Peter puts it in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in terms of deliverance from divine wrath.
You see the bible says that unless you’ve been rescued by Jesus, that all humans are under the wrath of God. I know that this is not a popular teaching in this area. Many in Marin and the Bay Area don’t want to hear any more about wrath or hell. They don’t want a God that has wrath. There are churches that have formed in Marin that get rid of that idea all together. But we still teach it here, because the Bible hasn’t changed, nor has Jesus word’s changed. Jesus talked about the coming wrath of God. This passage right here talks about it. The Bible says that God’s wrath will one day come upon this world. There will be a final Judgment Day. If you ignore this, or even if a so called church forms that denies it, that doesn’t change the reality. If the Bible’s claims are true, then it’s coming. If Jesus’ claims are true, then it’s coming. God will judge the world according to righteousness. He will pour out his wrath in unending hell fire upon the wicked. It’s a terrible thing to be a sinner in the hands of an angry God.
What should be especially sobering is that the Bible says that no one can live righteously enough at this point to escape themselves from that wrath of God. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48 that the standard was the perfect righteousness of God. But the Bible is clear – no man can ever meet that standard, as it says in passages like Romans 3:23, Psalm 53:3, and Jeremiah 17:9. In the Garden of Eden, the first parents had the opportunity to meet that standard. But they chose disobedience. Ever since then, all humanity has been sick with sin. Diseased with a natural inclination to rebel against God in one way or another. To not worship him and serve him perfectly each day as we ought. The Bible says this means we all deserve the wrath of God which is indeed coming.
Well, that’s the bad news. But Paul said he told them of good news. The good news is that’s why God sent his Son, Jesus into this world. Jesus died on the cross to bear God’s wrath toward sinners. Jesus died on the cross in place of everyone who would turn and believe in him. On the cross, God poured out his wrath towards sinners on Jesus. But then God raised the perfect Jesus from the dead. He brought him up to heaven. And now he offers forgiveness and grace to all who will turn and follow him in faith. That’s why it says here in verse 10 that Jesus delivers us from the wrath of God. Whoever turns in faith to Christ, can be delivered from this wrath. The word “deliver” is a word of rescue. If we trust in Christ, he rescues us. He rescues us from this wrath to come. That’s the good news; what we call the gospel. This is what Paul preached to the Thessalonians.
And so what Paul is so thankful here is that when the gospel was preached, they had the right response. That they became saved; rescued by Jesus that day when they responded rightly to the good news. Paul says in verse 4 that this shows they were God’s elect. That God had chosen long before to intervene on that very day in their hearts and lives as the gospel was preached; to save them from the wrath to come. To save them through Jesus. Paul rejoiced that this response to the gospel had taken place among them. So let’s turn now to look at what their commendable response looked like. There are several things commended.
First, notice that they received the gospel message in faith. That’s what verse 6 says, that they “received the word” that had been preached to them. Verse 8 mentions their faith toward God, which surely includes faith in this message. Next chapter actually flushes this reception out further in chapter 2:13. There Paul acknowledges how when Paul had preached the gospel to them, they didn’t receive it as a word from men. They received it as the word of God. Paul said that was right. Paul says that the gospel is not ultimately Paul’s good news, as much as it’s God’s good news for them; and for us. And so this is the starting point for whoever is preached the gospel. We need to start with faith. We need to receive and believe the gospel when it’s told to us. Our minds need to understand what’s being said, and believe it to be truth. We need to welcome it and trust it. We entrust our lives to Jesus, that he is able to forgive us and save us. You see the Bible says that our salvation is not something we can earn or merit. We don’t become saved by good works. No, we become saved through faith. No good works will get us into heaven. Yes, Christ will call us to pursue good works, but that’s a secondary response. We’ll discuss that in a moment. Salvation is chiefly from a gift – we can’t save ourselves by our works. No, we receive salvation solely as a gift from God. We receive it by faith. And so that’s the most fundamental response to the gospel. That’s how they responded. This is how we need to respond – with faith.
A second commendable respond to the gospel is in verse 9. Verse 9 says that the Thessalonians turned from idols to serve the living and true God. This is describing what the Bible calls repentance. Repentance is about turning away from a living a life apart from God, and turning toward God and God’s path for your life. Everybody who is not a believer in God through Christ has been living in one way or another apart from God. They’ve been living in a direction away from God. The gospel calls us to make a u-turn in our lives. To turn away from that wrong direction, and to turn toward God. To look to begin to serve him. And so at the start of the Christian life, we should have a mental change of direction. In our minds we commit to live a life that looks to serve the one true God. This initial repentance is so closely connected with faith. Real faith will come along with real repentance – with a real change of mind that looks to turn and begin a life with God. And so our repentance along with our faith are such fundamental responses to the gospel. In your heart and mind you turn away from your former life and place your faith in Christ.
Right here is another area of Biblical teaching that is not very popular in Marin and the Bay Area today. This idea presented in verse 9; that there is one true and living God, and the rest of the world’s so called gods are nothing but idols. We live in a culture that wants to be tolerant of other faiths and religions. Well, a Christian can be respectful of other people’s beliefs, but still disagree with them. And make no mistake – the Bible here repeats what it says in so many places. There is only one true and living God. Back then the non-Christian world had many religions and they worshipped many gods. But from the Bible’s perspective, this was not acceptable. God says in the Bible that he is a jealous God. He wants people to acknowledge him, the God of the Bible, as the only true God. He wants people to worship him the way he tells us to. He wants people to stop following all the other false religions in the world. You don’t get the idea in Scripture that every religion has something to offer and that they are all on equal ground. No, what’s it say in verse 9? That the gospel calls us to turn from false gods to the one true God and look to serve him. The Bible wants you to acknowledge all these false religions as false and come to the one true God. I realize that if you are a visitor here today, there is a good chance you’ve been brought up to react very negatively to this. But just because today’s culture in the Bay Area has taught you this is wrong, doesn’t mean they are right. I challenge you to really consider and weigh out the truth claims of Scripture. If the Bible is right, and I believe that it is, then the God who made the heavens and the earth has been calling you to turn from false religions unto himself. That means he’s speaking to you today even, through his Holy Word.
A third commendable response to the gospel is in verse 3. There it talks about faith, hope, and love. Specifically, it talks about actions connected with faith, hope, and love. Paul in a number of his letters likes to connect these things together: faith, hope, and love. Here he uses them to describe the nature of how the Thessalonians responded to the gospel. Their response to the gospel resulted in certain actions that flowed out of their faith, hope, and love. He thanks God for their work of faith and labor of love and patience or steadfastness of hope. Their work of faith is those works that come because of their faith. The gospel says we are saved by faith not by works. This reminds us that this doesn’t mean Christians won’t have any godly works. No they will; they just don’t save us. Our faith in Christ receives God’s free gift of salvation. And yet real faith will begin to live out godly works. And so this is describing is a secondary response to the gospel, something that flows out of our faith and repentance.
Similarly, the labor of love here means that as we have experienced Christ’s love, we’ll begin to have that kind of love grown in our hearts. As his love is produced inside it, it will show forth in our actions. God showed his love for with actions — by sending his son to die in our place. It was love in action. When someone receives the gospel, it means that God’s love begins to work inside us. As it says in 1 John 5, “We love, because he first loved us.”
Paul weds the faith and love with hope here. He talks about them having patience or steadfastness, that comes out of their hope. A Christian response to the gospel means that we have the hope of Christ coming back. We have the firm hope of eternal life. That makes us patient and steadfast in this world, even when we face troubles in this life. We can be patient and steadfast because we have a certain hope of Christ’s return. And so Paul shows here how the Christians’ faith, hope, and love, rooted in the gospel, is seen through tangible actions in their life.
A fourth commendable response to the gospel is seen in verses 6-8. There Paul talks about how the Thessalonians had begun to imitate Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. The book of Acts, chapter 17, records all the persecution that Paul faced in Thessalonica when he first preached the gospel to them. Now Paul describes here how the Thessalonians were facing the same thing. The Thessalonians had begun to share the gospel with others, and they faced similar persecution. Verse 6 describes how they received the word in much affliction. And verse 8 describes how they were sounding forth the word to others. It’s this bold imitating of Paul that was especially commendable here. They were willing to believe and share the gospel with others, even if it meant persecution by the world around them. And yet it says in verse 6 that they still had joy from the Holy Spirit. God is able to give joy to believers even when the world afflicts them for their faith. Again, do you see why Paul is thanking God here? God is bringing these Thessalonians believers greater measures of joy, faith, love, hope, boldness, and patience, even while the world persecutes them. God’s work in their lives, it says in verses 7 and 8, were an encouragement to others, in all the areas of Macedonia and Achaia. That’s like most of the country of modern day Greece! But not only were they imitating Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy in all of this. Look at verse 6 again. Paul says that they were not just imitating them. They were imitating the Lord. Jesus suffered while serving his Heavenly Father. Christians are to hold fast to the gospel, and share it with others, even if it means persecution. That’s what the prophets and apostles of old did. It’s especially what Jesus did. We are to follow Jesus. To imitate him. Responding to the gospel means we follow Jesus as his disciple. That’s what Jesus told his disciples on earth, “Follow me.” That’s what the gospel calls us to do: Follow Jesus.
A final commendable response to the gospel is given in verse 10. It talks about waiting. The Thessalonians were waiting for Christ to come back. Right now verse 10 says Christ is in heaven, but they were waiting for his return. That’s what verse 3 had in mind when it talked about that patience of hope. The Bible says Christ has gone up into heaven and is going to one day come back. The day he comes back is both a Day of Judgment and a Day of Salvation. For Christians we can look forward to that day knowing we’ve been saved. That means in the mean time we patiently wait for his coming. The waiting is in light of the troubles of this world. In this world we may have troubles. The world might persecute us for being a follower of Christ. But in the midst of trouble we can wait on the Lord. We can be patient for his coming, knowing that he will use us for his kingdom’s advancement in the mean time. And so this too is part of a commendable response to the gospel. In faith, we steadfastly wait for the Lord’s return. We set our hope firmly on his coming.
Today we’ve had the opportunity to summarize the gospel and to think about what a response to the gospel should look like. This is the response I commend to all of us today. If you are here as an unbeliever today, the starting point is faith and repentance. That’s the place to start with your response to the gospel. You’ve heard the good news of salvation in Jesus. How you can be rescued from the coming wrath by turning to Jesus in faith. Start there today. We talked today about what a full commendable response will look like to the gospel. But this more full response to the gospel must start with an initial point of faith and repentance. Confess that you’ve sinned against God. Turn from those sins; turn from the idols in your life. Place your faith in Jesus, that on the cross he died for your sins. And commit to live your life for him, from this day forward. The Spirit of Christ will then be living in your heart and life. He’ll begin to help you in living out the rest of the commendable response described here. Paul was able to thank God how many Thessalonians believed the gospel message he brought. It’s my hope and prayer today that I can thank God today for many people’s salvation as the gospel is again preached.
And if you are here today already as a believer in Christ, I especially commend to you the rest of the exemplary response described here. Some people become a Christian with the most elementary faith and repentance, but bear so little fruit. They might be saved, but their Christian life is not what’s described here. Their Christian life is not an exemplary pattern for others. It’s no model for other Christians to follow. This passage says that some believers can really be models for others. Well, God would have us each to aspire to greater and greater Christian growth. Let us look for our faith, hope, and love, to grow more and more. That they might yield the fruit of righteousness. Let’s look to serve God faithfully more and more; telling others about the gospel; enduring persecutions if they come; waiting for Christ’s return. Let’s imitate other godly believers who show this kind of Christ-like living; and more so – let’s imitate and follow Christ each day.
As I call you to this, remember that Paul had been thanking God for doing this in the Thessalonians life. The whole of our Christian life and growth comes from God’s grace. There’s a bit of mystery here in how God’s grace is at work in our lives to grow us, even as we personally work at living out our faith. But at the end of the day, when the Thessalonians had such a commendable response, Paul chose not to directly praise them, but to specifically thank God. That should tell us something very important. As we approach our Christian growth, we should do it prayerfully and humbly. We keep striving to respond the way it’s described here. But we pray for Christ’s help the whole time. We study God’s word to know what this should look like in each circumstance of life. And when we see the growth, we should humbly thank God instead of pridefully boasting.
What this will ultimately do is give God the glory. When we start to realize that God’s grace is behind all stages and aspects of our salvation, it’s cause to glorify God. But as you grow as a Christian, you realize how good that is. You grow like Paul to want to give God all the credit and all the glory for whatever good is happening in your life. God’s glory becomes more and more your delight and passion. As God is glorified more, you become delighted more and more. Let us live a life that glorifies God. And let us give him the glory as we do so more and more. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.