Do you have a favorite sports team? If so, I want you to lock that team into your mind for just a moment. Perhaps you graduated from the TAMU or UT, so you are a die-hard Aggie or Longhorn. Maybe you live and breathe the Dallas Cowboys or the Rangers. If so, God bless you. What happens when your favorite team wins a big game? You respond like this: “WE DID IT! WE WON!” You may run around the living room high-fiving, chest-bumping, and doing a little jig. Now my question is: What role did you play in this victory? Maybe you bought a jersey or a cap, but the truth is you didn’t do anything that contributed to your team’s success. Yet, you feel intense ownership because this is YOUR team.
If you and I can feel this strongly about our favorite sports team, how much more intense should our feelings be for our local church? We need to think of the church as “we,” not “they.” Although churches are made up of individuals, when you and I speak of the church we must never say “they.” Instead we should say “we”…for we are the church!
In the book of 1 Thessalonians, we will learn about a church that we can get excited about. Although there are no “perfect” churches, the church in Thessalonica is a model church. As we study this church, we will learn how we can be a church that glorifies God and leads the world to Him. Specifically, in 1 Thess 1:1-10, we will see that God uses the church to encourage leaders. Encouragement is found in the lives that we live.
- Leaders need encouragement in ministry (1:1-5).
In this first section, we discover that even godly and competent leaders need encouragement. Even though many leaders look confident and secure on the outside, on the inside they can be discouraged and insecure. God’s leaders are constantly under attack from Satan and need to be encouraged. In 1:1, Paul introduces his letter with these words: “Paul and Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.” Paul has written 13 New Testament books, yet this is the shortest of any of Paul’s greetings. He is obviously fond of this church and they are familiar with Paul and his traveling companions. Paul does not include his official title “apostle” in either 1 or 2 Thessalonians. This is also true of Philippians and Philemon. In Paul’s other nine epistles he uses his title, most likely because he is “under fire” from others. The reason for its omission in every case appears to have been the intimate and affectionate character of his relations with the parties addressed.
Paul includes “Silvanus and Timothy” because they were with him in Corinth when he wrote this letter, and these men had also assisted him in the building up of the Thessalonian church. More importantly, Paul seems to be affirming team leadership as the basic New Testament pattern. Paul was a team player that shared ministry and trained others to do ministry.
In your area of ministry, are you seeking to build a team? Have you sought to train others for ministry? Do you seek to train others so well that they surpass you in your ministry? Our MBC leaders have a team ministry philosophy. We are all co-equals who simply fulfill different responsibilities.
When Billy Graham received his Congressional Medal of Honor, the first thing he is reported to have said upon receiving the award is, “This has been a team effort from the very beginning,” and he proceeded to name the people who had ministered unto him through the years. In closing he said, “We did this together.” What a humble and God-honoring attitude!
It is worth noting that the phrase “in God” is as unusual as the phrase “in Christ” is familiar. The Thessalonians needed to be reminded that their sphere of protection and provision was “in God.” In the midst of tribulation and suffering it is easy to forget this. Still, in the greeting, Paul accords Jesus Christ equality with God the Father. Furthermore, he uses the full title of our Savior: “Lord Jesus Christ.” “Lord” refers to Yahweh—the God of the Old Testament. As “Lord,” Christ is God and the supreme Creator and Sustainer of the universe. “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves.” This is His earthly name and points to His humanity. Yet, Jesus is not just an exalted man but the eternal God who became man that He might die for our sin. “Christ” refers to the long promised Messiah who is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.
The final words of Paul’s greeting are “grace and peace.” “Grace” was a common Greek salutation that meant “greeting” or “rejoice.” “Peace” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew shalom meaning “favor,” “well-being,” and “prosperity in the widest sense,” especially prosperity in spiritual matters. Paul used both words when he greeted the recipients of his epistles. God’s grace is the basis for and leads to our peace. When you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, He gives you grace that leads to peace with God.
Paul now launches into the longest thanksgiving section in the entire New Testament. He is pumped about this church! Although Paul is quite pleased with this church, there is another reason he spends so much time expressing thanks. It is fairly certain that this congregation lacks confidence in their salvation. Consequently, Paul spends time affirming them. In 1:2-3 he writes, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father.”
It’s been said, “You can tell a man’s values by what he appreciates.” In these verses, Paul expresses his deep appreciation for the spiritual maturity of the Thessalonians. The words “always” and “constantly” don’t indicate an uninterrupted task of incessant praying, but rather a faithful, regular pattern of prayer and thanksgiving. Nevertheless, these verses are challenging. They call you and me to pray for our church, specifically. Not just a generic, “Lord, bless our church,” but specific expressions of gratitude for individuals in our church. Start with your small group. Cry out to God for individuals in your ministry. Paul had a prayer list. Do you? Use a prayer list, a prayer diary, a prayer card. Stick a photo on the fridge, on the bathroom mirror, or on the steering wheel of your car. Whatever it takes!
In 1:3, Paul shares three characteristics he appreciates about the Thessalonian believers. First, he mentions their “work of faith.” Salvation is God’s gift. Faith rests upon the work of God, not our work. Yet, when we rest on God’s work, God produces His work in us. Paul blesses these believers because of the works that followed their faith. Encouragement is found in the lives that we live.
Second, Paul refers to their “labor of love.” The word “labor” denotes wearying toil involving sweat and fatigue to the point of exhaustion. It is a love of blood, sweat, and tears. I remember one summer when I worked as a handyman’s apprentice. It was hard work. I labored because I had to, but I also labored because I wanted to. You see, I was working to learn things I have used ever since. This was a valuable time for me, but it was some of the hardest work I have ever done.
I know many individuals in our church who work their tails off. Like most people, these folks have a spouse, children, and work responsibilities. Nevertheless, they refuse to say, “I don’t have time to serve the Lord. I have family responsibilities, I have work responsibilities, and I need my free time.” These choice people are concerned about all of these responsibilities, but they are equally concerned about their obligation to their Lord. Interestingly, it is those people in our church who serve the most that also tend to have the best marriages and families. They are also the most successful in their careers. God is no man’s debtor. If you labor for Him, He will multiply your time and bless you to boot!
Lastly, Paul refers to their “steadfastness of hope.” Our English word “steadfastness” seems soft and passive. Yet, the Greek term behind this translation is tenacious and aggressive. Similarly, the English word “hope” transmits the idea of wishful thinking. We say, “I hope it is sunny tomorrow.” We mean by that, “I wish for another warm day tomorrow.” Biblical hope, however, is not wishful thinking. No, hope has the idea that we have assurance in the future because of who God is. Hope helps us claim the promises of God. In other words, the problems we currently face do not daunt us because we see beyond the moment. We possess a holy stick-to-it-iveness that enables us to remain steadfast in the midst of trials and difficulties.
Our dog, Maggie can hold onto a toy longer than any dog we have ever had. Do you have this type of tenacity? If God calls you to a task, do you refuse to let go? Those who want to advance the cause of Christ in the world cannot give up.
These three characteristics can only be lived out by noting the last phrase of 1:3: “in the Lord Jesus Christ.” When we abide in Christ and live in Him, supernatural living occurs. This is what is really exciting!
“What do I give thanks for?” Encouragement is found in the lives that we live.
Paul continues his thought in 1:4 and explains why the Thessalonians are able to live such godly lives. The short and sweet phrase he pens is: “knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you.” With the word “choice,” we are confronted with the doctrine of election, a doctrine that has different effects on various people. It can be a frightening, confusing, and maddening doctrine, for in election man’s finite mind meets head-on with the infinite mind of God.
But this issue doesn’t have to be as hard as we like to make it. Scripture teaches both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. How does all this work together? I’m not sure. But I know this: We will never understand the total concept of election this side of heaven. But we should not ignore this important doctrine that is taught throughout the Bible. In the end, we must recognize that the doctrine of election includes these two irreconcilable truths that are nonetheless true.
It is sufficient to ask this question: Do you understand how a brown cow can eat green grass and give white milk and yellow butter? Of course not! Yet, we enjoy the products. In the same way, even though we can’t completely understand or explain election, we should still enjoy it because the Bible teaches it.
Since Paul doesn’t elaborate on the doctrine of election neither will I. I will just quickly break down this phrase. First of all, Paul is confident that the Thessalonians are elect so he uses the word “know.” There are no doubts, no ifs, no maybes, and no buts. We can know that we are elect, if we have believed in Christ. Works give further human or visible confirmation of one’s election (James 2:14-26). Paul affirms the Thessalonians in three expressions: (1) brethren, (2) beloved by God, and (3) chosen of God.
When it comes to election, all you need to know is this:
(1) Salvation begins with God.
(2) Salvation involves God’s love.
(3) Salvation requires faith. God chose you to be saved. If He had not chosen you, you would not be saved today.
Election and evangelism go together. The person who says, “God will save those He wants to save and He doesn’t need my help!” understands neither election nor evangelism. In the Bible, election always involves responsibility. God chose Israel and made them an elect nation so that they might witness to the Gentiles.
Sometimes we speak of “finding” the Lord, but if He had not found us first, we would never have found Him at all. Salvation begins with God, not with us. He chooses us and then we believe. Salvation is all by grace, all of God, all the time. If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, this should give you incredible confidence. The assurance of your salvation does not depend upon you; it rests on God’s choice of you.
Many godly people try to explain away election and in doing so remove one of the strongest arguments for assurance and the security of the believer. The truth is: Nothing gives security to salvation like the concept of election. God is the creator, sustainer, and preserver of your salvation. Even if you are faithless, He remains faithful (2 Tim 2:13) because He has chosen you and adopted you into His family. You may choose to fall away from God, yet He will not choose to cast you out of His family (John 6:37-40). He loves you and will remain loyal in His commitment to you.
Paul is confident of the Thessalonians’ election because of the evidence of God’s grace at work in them and the gospel that he delivered. He concludes this section in 1:5 with a “triple whammy:” “for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know that kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.”
(1) God’s election is effective because it is the Word of God. The gospel is based upon the promise of God who says, “Whosoever will believe in Christ can have eternal life.”
(2) God’s election is effective because it comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. Even when we have done our best as preachers, it will count for nothing without the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the hearers. God must prepare hearts and make them receptive to His Word.
(3) God’s election is effective because it produces deep conviction in the hearts of the hearers. This means people are so deeply convicted of their sin and their need for a savior that they run to the cross and embrace Jesus as their only hope of heaven. The phrase “full conviction” also means that the preacher and the hearers can be confident that the Word of God has been preached.
Paul closes this section by saying, “The gospel is not word only, for talk is cheap. We proved to be godly men among you.” The gospel will be most effective when Christians live a life worthy of their calling. This means cultivating the fruit of the Spirit and godly character.
John Wooden, the former basketball coach at UCLA said, “Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.” Will you work on your character this week? Will you strive to become a contagious Christian? Will you become a person of faith, love, and hope? Encouragement is found in the lives that we live.
[Leaders need encouragement in ministry because it is easy to become discouraged. In our next section we will clearly see that…]
- Our lives can provide much needed encouragement (1:6-10).
In this section, Paul shares the specific reasons why he is so excited about the Thessalonians. Before we jump into these reasons, we must remember that this church is not typical of many churches today. It was not even typical of churches in Paul’s day. (Think Corinth) Nevertheless, the church at Thessalonica is God’s ideal—it is the type of church that He wants every church to become. Sometimes you see a label on a bottle of powerful cleaner (antifreeze, car window cleaner, etc.) that says, “Do not use at full strength. Dilute with water first,” because the liquid is too strong in its undiluted form. In this section we see Christianity in its earliest, undiluted form. No wonder the first Christians turned the world upside down. We need to work through this section and pray for undiluted Christianity. In the paragraphs that follow, Paul provides several reasons why he is particularly excited about the faith of the Thessalonian believers.
- The church followed their spiritual leaders (1:6a).Paul writes, “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord.”The word translated “imitators” comes from the word mimos meaning “a mimic.” Throughout his letters, Paul urges believers to “mimic” him as he mimics Christ. It is important that young Christians respect spiritual leadership and learn from mature believers. Just as a newborn baby needs a family, so a newborn Christian needs the local church and the leaders there. It is equally important that leaders give believers something to look up to and mimic. Fortunately, many of you are worthy of imitation. You are an inspiration to me in every area of your lives.
- The church received the Word (1:6b).The Thessalonian Christians “received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”Paul does not use the typical word for “received,” instead he uses an unusual word that refers to the warm welcome of a guest (as in Luke 10:8, 10; Heb 11:31). The Thessalonians seized the gospel with joy even in the midst of suffering. They received the Word with gladness. They could not get enough of it. What a congregation! A dream for every preacher! They were hungry for the Word; they were drinking in every word that was spoken; they were sitting on the edge of their seat. And they kept coming back for more. Does this describe you? Do you look forward to coming to church to hear God’s Word? Do you look for opportunities throughout the week to get into the Word?
Please note that the Thessalonian believers received the Word “in much tribulation.” The word “tribulation” means “to press.” Do you ever feel like the world, your flesh, and Satan are pressing in on you? Trusting in Christ does not guarantee a life free from tension. These believers experienced rejection from family members, loss of employment, and social disgust. Today, many believers experience physical persecution and even martyrdom. Yet, we must recognize that God may bring suffering for the sake of an effective corporate witness. Persecution can be the fastest way to grow a church in health and number. I know some of you willingly suffer for Christ. You’re willing to be an outcast at work. You don’t always fit in with your family and friends because of your faith. But you continue to persevere in Christ. I can assure you that God will honor you in the life to come.
- The church encouraged other churches (1:7). By following their leaders and receiving the Word in much tribulation, yet with joy, the Thessalonians “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” This verse is the only place in the New Testament where a whole congregation is viewed as an example for other churches. And notice the word “example” is singular. Paul is referring to the whole church, not just a few standout members. The word “example” refers not merely to being an example which others are to follow, but also a pattern which influences them.
It’s not enough to passively live our lives before other Christians. Sometimes we must be more direct in our influence. Perhaps you have seen star- shaped cookies. Those cookies were prepared using a mold. But it isn’t enough to show off the mold, one must press the dough into the mold and onto the baking sheet. This is what Paul is talking about—intentionally influencing Christians for Christ. When we do this, we will be able to lead the world.
- The church spread the Word (1:8).The Thessalonian believers were both “receivers” (1:5) and “transmitters”—the Word went out from them. Paul writes, “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.”The verb “sounded out” is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. Outside of the NT, it is used of a clap of thunder or the sound of a trumpet. It means “to reverberate like an echo.” Wherever Paul went, the people told him about the faith of the Thessalonian believers.
It is interesting to note that the town of Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia. We may not have our church in Austin, but if we showcase godly lives and sound forth the Word, we are capable of impacting our entire state. But this must involve you. That is why we are trying to engage our community.
For most people to believe in Christ for the first time, the personal touch is required. This means that we have folks into our home or take them out to a meal or talk to them at work about a faith relationship with Jesus Christ. Most people require a personal invitation in a one-on-one context. This is the responsibility of the church. We all bear the privilege and responsibility to share Christ with others. The Word must sound forth from YOU!
When I was in 7th grade, I tried to play the guitar. I took lessons because I wanted to lead music in our youth group. I was interested in 70s music and wanted to really rock the house. Unfortunately, I gave up the guitar after just a few months of unsuccessful lessons. I never did learn how to rock. I believe there are some Christians out there who want to rock. They want to “sound forth” God’s Word but have never learned how and have struggled to be faithful in this task. God doesn’t want you to give up; He wants you to persist until He makes our church what He wants it to be. Encouragement is found in the lives that we live.
- The church turned to God (1:9). Paul writes, “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.”
The people throughout Thessalonica and Macedonia saw a change in the Thessalonian saints and they talked up the church. This is the best form of advertising there is! What made this church “the talk of the town?” They turned to God from idols and immediately began serving the Lord. Note the order of words here. We would normally think in terms of turning from idols to God but here Paul’s argument is that they first turned to God and then away from idols. The Thessalonians didn’t leave their idols and then go out to find God. They turned to God and then left their idols. Conversion is not only turning from something but it is a turning to Someone. Don’t worry about cleaning yourself up first. Let God do this. Now not everyone turns immediately or sufficiently, but this is God’s business. He is more interested in the growth and health of His children than we are. Let Him work in His time and in His way.
- The church waited for Jesus’ return(1:10).Paul writes that these believers who converted to Christ responded by “wait[ing] for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.” The word “wait” is only used here in the New Testament, but it is used in the Greek Old Testament to describe a servant’s eager waiting for his wages (Job 7:2). It is also used to describe the longing of an afflicted person for his deliverance (Isa 59:11). The word means literally, to wait up. The Thessalonians were waiting up for the Lord’s return.
The “coming wrath” could refer to a couple of significant events.
(1) It could speak of the frightening eternal judgment of God.
(2) It could refer to the tribulation period when God pours out His wrath on earth for a period of seven years.
It seems to me that “the coming wrath” of 1:10 is best understood to refer to a particular wrath, the wrath of the Tribulation.
Chronologically, the next great expression of God’s wrath is the Tribulation, which is a time of God’s wrath poured out on a Christ-rejecting world. The judgment of the Great White Throne (see Rev 20:11-15)—a judgment of all the unbelieving of all generations—does not occur until after the millennial reign of Christ, which occurs after the Tribulation and the events of Revelation 6-19. In this book, the resurrection of believers and the deliverance of believers are closely related or tied together (see 1 Thess 4:13f). Thus, the implication is that deliverance comes through the rapture.
When you schedule a family vacation, likely you count down the days until you can “take off.” If someone is engaged, they count down to the wedding day! If someone has a spouse in the military and they go away for a year, does the family s count the days until they return? Looking for the Lord to return at any moment will change our lives. It will transform our way of doing things. It will change the way we deal with temptations. It will alter our priorities. It will lead us to do something about broken relationships. Many of you are living this type of life and I thank God for you. Encouragement is found in the lives that we live.