Scripture readings: Ex. 33:12-23 and Ps. 99 (or Isa. 45:1-7 and Ps. 96:1-13) 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22 Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (drawing on commentary by John Stott)
Living and Sharing the Gospel
Our reading from the epistles today is from Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Thessalonica.
Following greetings in 1 Thess. 1:1-4, Paul links the gospel and the church in 1 Thess. 1:5-10. He shows in three steps how the gospel creates the church and how the church then lives and shares the gospel:
- “Our gospel came to you” (v. 5).
- “You welcomed the message” (v. 6).
- “The Lord’s message rang out from you” (v. 8).
This is how evangelism worked in Thessalonica in the first century, and how it still works in our day. Let’s explore each step.
1. The gospel came to you (v. 5)
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.
The gospel did not come to Thessalonica by being dropped by parachute from heaven. No, along with his ministry partners Silas and Timothy, Paul brought the gospel to that city. Before they arrived there was no church—when they left, the church had been planted and had taken root. How did that happen? The planting was the direct result of evangelism—the sharing of the gospel. That sharing occurred in four ways:
a. With words. True, the gospel came “not simply with words,” but it did come to them with words. The gospel is a “message” (v. 6) or “the word” (RSV), “the word of the Lord” (v. 8, RSV) or “the word of God” (2:13, RSV). Words matter—they communicate meaning, and the gospel has a specific meaning. That is why it must be verbalized. In our evangelism, whether in public preaching or private sharing, we need to use words.
b. With power. Words by themselves are seldom enough—this is especially true in communicating the gospel, since blind eyes and hard hearts do not appreciate it. So words spoken in human weakness need to be confirmed with divine power. The reference here is probably to the internal operation of the Holy Spirit. It is only by his power that the gospel can penetrate people’s mind, heart, conscience and will. Paul wrote the same thing to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 2:1-5), and it is from Corinth that he wrote to the Thessalonians. We must never divorce what God has married, namely his Word and Spirit. The Word of God is the Spirit’s sword (Eph. 6:17). The Spirit without the Word is weaponless; the Word without the Spirit is powerless.
c. With deep conviction. “Power” describes the objective result of the preaching, “conviction” the subjective state of the preacher. Paul’s preaching was not only powerful in its effect but confident in its presentation. He was sure of his message, of its truth and its relevance, and in consequence he was bold in proclaiming it.
d. With the Holy Spirit. I put this expression last because it seems to belong to the other three: the truth of the Word, the conviction with which we speak it, and the power of its impact on others all come from the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is he who illuminates the mind of those who share the gospel so that our message has integrity and clarity. It is he whose inward witness assures us of its truth, so that we verbalize the gospel with conviction. And it is he who carries it home with power, so that the hearers respond in repentance and faith.
2. You welcomed the message (vv. 6-7)
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
Paul praises the Thessalonians for how they received the gospel:
a. Despite severe suffering. There had been considerable opposition in Thessalonica to the gospel, and so also to those who preached it and those who embraced it. The gospel frequently arouses hostility (not least because it challenges human pride and self-indulgence), although the opposition it provokes takes different forms. But persecution had not deterred the Thessalonians. They had “welcomed the message” despite the suffering involved.
b. With the joy given by the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who gave power to those who preached the gospel gave joy to those who received it. He was working at both ends—in the speakers and in the hearers. And it is not surprising to read of the converts’ joy, for joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Wherever the gospel goes and people respond, there is joy— joy in heaven among the angels over sinners repenting (Luke 15:7, 10) and joy on earth among the people of God (Acts 8:8, 39; 13:52; 16:34). This pattern of outward opposition and inward joy has often been repeated in the long history of the church (John 16:33).
c. You became imitators of us and of the Lord. This is an earlier expression, which comes at the beginning of v. 6. It indicates the profound change that came over the lives of the converts. They began to follow the example as well as the teaching of the apostles and so of Jesus whose apostles they were. To “welcome the message” includes this. It’s no mere intellectual agreement with the truth of the gospel—it’s a complete transformation of behavior through a close following of Christ and his apostles.
d. And so you became a model. Those who take Christ and his apostles as their model inevitably themselves become a model to others. And the singular “model” probably signifies “a model community”—the church. It is marvelous to see in a congregation of transformed sinners the effect of the gospel on those who receive it. It may mean persecution and consequent suffering, but it also involves inward joy through the Holy Spirit, the imitation of Christ and the apostles in changed lives, and the setting of an example to others.
3. The message went forth from you (vv. 8-10)
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.
The gospel spread forth from and through them—so loudly and clearly that it (“the Lord’s message”) “rang out” (a translation of the Greek word execheo, which is derived from echos, an echo or noise as from a trumpet or thunder). Paul’s point is that the Thessalonians lived and shared the gospel, making “a loud noise” in the ears of unbelievers. As a result, their “faith in God” became “known everywhere” (v. 8).
Something extraordinary was happening in Thessalonica: a new society was emerging, with new values and standards, characterized by faith, love and hope. And people were taking notice and telling others about it—the gospel was being “gossiped” around—so much so that Paul says that “we do not need to say anything about it” (v. 8b). Better, “we do not need to tell other people about it: other people tell us…” (JB). Exactly what was being reported? In general, it was a report about their “faith in God” (v. 8). More specifically people were “gossiping” about the “reception” given Paul, his team and their message (v. 9) and the results in the lives of the believers in Thessalonica—in short, a report about their conversion (vv. 9b-10). That conversion consisted of three parts: (1) a decisive break with idols, (2) an active service of God, and (3) a patient waiting for Christ. This three-part formula seems to equate with Paul’s three-part summary of Christian virtue: faith, love and hope (see 1:3):
a. As you turned from idols (acting in faith). It would be difficult to exaggerate how radical is the change of allegiance that is implied by the turn from idols to “the living and true God” (see Jer. 10:10). For idols are dead; God is living. Idols are false; God is true. Idols are many; God is one. Idols are visible and tangible; God is invisible and intangible, beyond the reach of sight and touch. Idols are creatures, the work of human hands; God is the creator of the universe and of all humankind.
Paul knew what he was talking about. Not only had he railed against idolatry when addressing the pagans of Lystra (Acts 14) and the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17), but the Thessalonians could themselves see Mount Olympus, about 50 miles south of their city, where the Greek gods and goddesses supposedly lived.
Today we are more “sophisticated” with our idolatry. Some people are eaten up with selfish ambition for money, power or fame. Others are obsessed with their work, or with sports or television, or are infatuated with a person, or addicted to food, alcohol, drugs or sex. Both immorality and greed are later pronounced by Paul to be forms of idolatry (Eph. 5:5), because they demand an allegiance that is due God alone. So every idolater is a prisoner, held in humiliating bondage. But the good news is that through the grace of God in Christ, in many cases suddenly and completely, the prisoner turns to God from the idols (whether superstitious or sophisticated), which so far have controlled their life. In this way, the “strong man” (the devil) is overpowered by one stronger than he (Jesus), his palace is raided and his prisoners are set free (see Luke 11:21-22).
b. As you served God (acting in love). The claim to have turned to God from idols is bogus if it does not result in serving the God to whom we have turned. We must not think of conversion only in negative terms as a turning away from the old life, but also positively as the beginning of a new life of service. We could say that it is the exchange of one slavery for another, so long as we add that the new slavery is the real freedom. In this way, authentic conversion involves a double liberation, both “from” slavery to idols and “to” the service of God, whose children we are.
c. As you awaited Christ’s return (acting in hope). Note that serving and waiting go together in the experience of believers. This, at first sight, is rather surprising since serving is active and waiting is passive. In Christian terms, serving is getting busy for Christ on earth, while waiting is looking for Christ to come from heaven. Yet these two are not incompatible. On the contrary, each balances the other. On the one hand, however hard we work and serve, there are limits to what we can accomplish. We can only improve society; we cannot perfect it. For that we have to wait for Christ to come. Only then will he secure the final triumph of God’s reign of justice and peace (2 Pet. 3:13). On the other hand, although we must look expectantly for the coming of Christ, we have no liberty to wait in idleness, indifferent to the needs of the world around us. Instead, we must work even while we wait, for we are called to serve the living God.
Thus working and waiting belong together. In combination they will deliver us both from the presumption that thinks we can do everything and from the pessimism that thinks we can do nothing.
In this first reference of the letter to the return of Christ (the Parousia), which is hereafter mentioned in every chapter of both 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, Paul tells us two truths about him for who we wait:
- Jesus is the one, “whom he [God] raised from the dead.” The resurrection not only publicly declared Jesus to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:4) but was also the beginning of God’s new creation, the pledge that he will complete what he has begun. The resurrection from the dead assures us of the return from heaven.
- Jesus is the one “who rescues us from the coming wrath.” Already, Jesus has delivered us from the condemnation of our sins and the power of our idols. But when he comes, he will accomplish the final stage of our salvation: he will rescue us from the outpouring of God’s wrath against sin (condemnation) at the day of judgment (see Rom.2:5, 16). It is from this condemnation that Jesus is our deliverer.
Looking back over this passage, noting the vital relationship between the church and the gospel, two points stand out:
- The church that receives the gospel must pass it on. Nothing is more impressive in 1 Thess. 1 than the sequence “our gospel came to you—you welcomed it—it rang out from you.” God intends every church to be like a sounding board, bouncing off the vibrations of the gospel, or like a telecommunications satellite, which first receives and then transmits messages. This is God’s primary method for evangelization—making disciples of all nations.
- The church that passes on the gospel must embody it. We have noted that what went forth from Thessalonica was not only “the word of the Lord” (verbal evangelism) but also news of their conversion (rumor evangelism). Everybody heard about this new community that had come into being in Thessalonica, its bold rejection of idolatry, its joy in the midst of opposition, its transformed values, its faith and love. People were so impressed by what they heard that many must have come to see for themselves.
The communication of the gospel is by seeing as well as by hearing. This double strand runs through all the Bible: image and word, vision and voice, opening the eyes of the blind and unstopping the ears of the deaf. Jesus is the Word of God and the Image of God. The Word became visible, the Image audible. No church can spread the gospel with any degree of integrity, let alone credibility, unless it has been visibly changed by the gospel it preaches. We need to look like what we are talking about. It’s not enough to receive the gospel and pass it on—we must embody it in our common life of faith, love and hope. And to that we say, Amen!