Real People—Real Gospel—Real City
Real People—Real Gospel—Real City
1 Thessalonians 1:1; ACTS 17:1-9
Main Idea: The gospel of Jesus Christ can transform a people and impact a city.
- The Gospel Motivates (1 Thess 1:1a) (Acts 17:1-4).
- The gospel motivates us to go and tell.
- We become passionate about the advancement of the gospel (Acts 17:1-2a).
- We become passionate about the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 17:2b-4).
- The gospel motivates us to press on and persevere (Acts 17:5-9).
- The church keeps going despite adversity (1 Thess 3:1-5).
- The church keeps growing through adversity (1 Thess 3:6-8).
- The Gospel Transforms (1 Thess 1:1b).
- The gospel transforms people (1 Thess 1:1b).
- The gospel transforms position (1 Thess 1:1c).
- Grace: our standing before God
- Peace: our relationship with God
A common misconception people on the outside of the church have about people on the inside of the church is that people on the inside are somehow insulated from or unaffected by the real struggles of life. Many attenders perpetuate this idea by observing the unwritten rule that when attending church, if you pretend that your life is perfect, you may just be able to convince others that it is. They could borrow a line from the old commercial on a certain deodorant: when in church, never let those in the pews around you "see you sweat."
Of course, those on the inside know from personal experience that Christians are real people who live in a real world and experience real struggles. The variable changing the equation for a believer is not the absence of these struggles, but a personal, life-changing encounter with a real God through the person of Jesus Christ. From the moment you embrace the gospel, the entire picture and pursuit of your life is radically transformed. The gospel goes far beyond reforming character or insulating you from life's challenges; it brings about the transformation of your heart.
If ever a city needed this kind of transformation, it was Thessalonica. This city was full of real people who were overwhelmed with real struggles and desperately needed a life-changing encounter with a real God. Thessalonica had a burgeoning population of more than 200,000 Romans, Greeks, and Jews. It was also the temporary home of thousands of sailors, travelers, and immigrants who visited its bustling port or traveled its busy highways. A vibrant economy, a strategic harbor, and a prime location on the Roman Empire's Egnatian Road made Thessalonica one of the most influential cities of the first century. It was the New York, Houston, or Boston of its day—yet for all its assets, Thessalonica was a lost city. The Greeks filled the temples, the Jews attended the synagogue, and the Romans paid homage to Caesar, but a pervasive spiritual darkness covered the city. As Gene Green puts it, the Thessalonians were afloat "in a sea of great religious pluralism and confusion" (Green, Letters, 32).
The apostle Paul knew that for the gospel to break through the religious fog of the city, it first had to shine in the hearts of the people. He was convinced that if a church could be planted in this strategically located and culturally diverse city, the gospel could spread to Rome in the West and to Asia Minor in the East. He and his colleagues, Silvanus and Timothy, had personally experienced the transforming power of the gospel. They were now passionately committed to bring this good news to the people of Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9).
The Gospel Motivates
1 Thessalonians 1:1a and ACTS 17:1-4
"Be careful" are words all parents have uttered to their children. I can remember, as a child, hearing those words a thousand times, and as a
parent I have also shared them with my children. After all, what loving parent wants a child to take unnecessary risks? In life, risk—whether it be an uncertain investment, a drive on a dangerous mountain road, or sharing a secret with an untrustworthy friend—is something to be avoided.
However, when you follow Jesus Christ you do more than choose a different life; in a real sense, a different life chooses you. This new life leads you to take big steps and bold risks. Jesus put it this way: "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it" (Luke 9:23-24). Later Jesus would look squarely at the multitudes and challenge them to "calculate the cost" of following Him (Luke 14:28-33). Risk comes at great cost, and not everyone is willing to pay it. Denying self, taking up crosses, and following a revolutionary figure like Jesus Christ are not natural pursuits for anyone. This kind of risk-taking requires a supernatural motivation.
The Gospel Motivates Us to Go and Tell
The Thessalonian letter begins by introducing the founders of the church—Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy (1:1). They had been in the beginning weeks of their second missionary journey, and their arrival in Thessalonica was not accidental. Behind the scenes God had been supernaturally preparing the way. Through divine intervention, Paul had experienced the unmistakable call of God to take the gospel to the cities of Macedonia. His response was decisive and immediate (Acts 16:9-10). Macedonia boasted some of the most strategically located, culturally diverse, and spiritually dark cities of the ancient world. What better place to preach the good news!
Before arriving in Thessalonica, Paul, Silas, and Timothy had visited Philippi. Philippi proved to be both a formidable place to preach the gospel and a serious test of their resolve and character. Although their experience in Philippi nearly cost them their lives, it did not shake their confidence in God's calling. Far from being dissuaded from their mission, Paul, Silas, and Timothy forged ahead with a renewed sense of passion and urgency. They rejoiced that in the midst of their personal adversities, God was up to something big. Many lives were transformed, a vibrant church was planted, and the gospel was advancing.
We become passionate about the advancement of the gospel (Acts 17:1-2a). With the trials of Philippi behind them, Paul and his companions cameexpectantly to Thessalonica. For them, ministry was less about their own good fortune and more about the advancement of the good news. How unfortunate to view ministry as more about our comfort than about God's calling or to be more consumed about what we want God to do for us than about what He desires to do through us. We would do well to recognize a discernible link between adversity and the great purposes of God. The biblical record is replete with testimonies of how God uses the suffering of His servants to bring about His most significant work.
The pattern emerging from Paul's ministry was that whether he experienced a revival or a riot, he remained inexorably committed to his calling. Dietrich Bonhoeffer powerfully captures what it means to follow Christ in this way:
God honors some with great suffering and grants them the grace of martyrdom, while others are not tempted beyond their strength. But in every case it is one cross. It is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. Those who enter into discipleship enter into Jesus' death. They turn their living into dying.... Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 87)
So whether he was beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, chased and pursued in Thessalonica, or ridiculed and mocked in Athens, Paul affirmed without hesitation that he was not ashamed of the gospel (Rom 1:16).
We become passionate about the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 17:2b-4). Without question, our lives are awash in a sea of opinions. From well-meaning friends to aggressive advertisers, there is never a shortage of people who want to tell us what we should do or how we should live. However, followers of Jesus Christ do not interpret the world through the lens of human opinion; they interpret the world through the lens of Scripture.
Upon their arrival in Thessalonica, Paul, Silas, and Timothy made their way to the synagogue. It provided the perfect setting to preach the good news. Their goal was not to add another religious opinion to the already overly saturated religious climate of Thessalonica. Instead, for three weeks Paul "reasoned with them from the Scriptures" (Acts 17:2). Notice that he did not talk about the Scriptures, he reasoned from the Scriptures. There is a big difference. Faithful biblical exposition will always help people to see the text for themselves. Preachers and teachers must never assume that people will connect their thoughts with the truths of the biblical text. They must be shown what the text says and where the text says it. Biblical exposition is simply helping people to read their Bibles for themselves.
Paul's pattern of preaching provides preachers with a helpful model for faithful Bible exposition. This can be clearly seen by Luke's description of how Paul "reasoned" from Scripture, "explaining" its meaning and "showing" that Jesus was the Messiah who was raised from the dead (Acts 17:2-3). That brings together argumentation, explanation, and illustration. His approach was logical, it was thorough, and it was unmistakably biblical.
Notice carefully Paul's threefold approach in Acts 17:2-3.
- He reasoned from the Scriptures by using carefully crafted arguments to demonstrate the Christocentric focus and theological significance of the Scriptures. He engaged their minds with hopes that God would enlighten their hearts.
- He explained the meaning of the Scriptures by helping his listeners to know what was said and where the Scriptures said it.
- He illustrated biblical truth by placing it before the people in such a way that they could see the implications of its message for their lives.
Clearly, the gospel message connected with more than a few of the Thessalonians. Luke tells us, "some of them were persuaded ... including a great number of God-fearing Greeks, as well as a number of the leading women" (Acts 17:4). The good news had arrived in Thessalonica, but this good news was about to present Paul and his companions with a big problem.
The Gospel Motivates Us to Press On and Persevere (Acts 17:5-9).
Whenever the gospel is preached, you can generally anticipate one of three responses. First, some people will get angry. This response is common in today's world when Christians are regularly labeled as hatemongers for declaring the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way to God. Second, some people will elevate that anger to the level of persecution. Around the globe untold millions of Christians live in imminent physical danger and many have lost their lives for the sake of preaching Jesus. Finally, when the gospel is preached, there will always be some people who will embrace the message and be saved.
These were the exact responses in Thessalonica. The excitement of the Jews, God-fearing Greeks, and leading women who embraced the gospel was about to be interrupted by an angry mob of envious Jews and evil men who had no appetite for the message. Their initial response of anger had escalated to persecution. The gospel that had come to Thessalonica was threatening to turn their city "upside down" by challenging the authority of Caesar through the claim that there was "another king—Jesus" (Acts 17:6-7). This serious charge came with serious consequences. Simply put, the message of Jesus was counter-cultural to the Thessalonians. It hit the very heart of the city. If Jesus was the true King, then Caesar was not. If Jesus was the only Savior, then all the shrines and temples were worthless monuments built to worship worthless gods. If Jesus was in fact the Son of God, then God must be real. And if God was indeed real, then they were accountable to Him. The message of Jesus was therefore unpalatable to most of the Thessalonians, and they were determined to mute the message and the messengers by whatever means necessary. When Jesus Christ is faithfully preached, you don't have to go looking for trouble; trouble will often come looking for you. Hence, out of growing concern for their personal safety, the new Thessalonian converts implored Paul, Silas, and Timothy to leave the city. Under cover of darkness, they left the fragile new church that had been established in Thessalonica.
The church keeps going despite adversity (1 Thess 3:1-5). The decision to leave the city was doubtlessly painful for Paul. A true shepherd is driven not by personal ambition but by pastoral concern. Added to his own personal struggles, a pastor also carries the burdens of those entrusted to his care. Most pastors will tell you that even when God calls them to a new ministry, their fond affection remains for the people they leave behind. Paul may have continued on his journey to advance the gospel, but his heart was still very much in the city. He may have escaped the persecution of the angry mob, but he could not escape his concern for the new believers he left behind. Was the adversity too great? Were they still running the race? Did they feel as if he had abandoned them? When you gaze through the window of Paul's heart, you begin to see
his passionate love for the church. When he finally pens his letter to the church, his words give us some indication of the inner turmoil he experienced by having to leave them so hastily.
Therefore, when we could no longer stand it, we thought it was better to be left alone in Athens. And we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you concerning your faith, so that no one will be shaken by these persecutions. For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. In fact, when we were with you, we told you previously that we were going to suffer persecution, and as you know, it happened. For this reason, when I could no longer stand it, I also sent him to find out about your faith, fearing that the tempter had tempted you and that our labor might be for nothing. (3:1-5)
Paul wanted the Thessalonians to be assured of his love for them. He also wanted to know how they were doing. When Timothy returned with an update, what Paul learned brought great joy to his heart.
The church keeps growing through adversity (3:6-8). The Thessalonian church was alive and well. Instead of snuffing out the light of the gospel, the adversity had the opposite effect. As early church father Tertullian so aptly affirmed in his Apologeticus, persecution quite often leads to a stronger church because the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church. The seeds that Paul had planted in Thessalonica were growing in the fertile soil of adversity. The Thessalonian church was growing in its faith in Christ and in its love for Paul. Of course, the church was not perfect. The church was made up of real people who were living out their faith in a very real world. The gospel brought them transformation in their hearts but they had a long way to go in the sanctification of their lives. Paul would address this in greater detail later in the letter.
The Gospel Transforms
1 Thessalonians 1:1b
During my 25 years of ministry I have witnessed dozens of programs, campaigns, and initiatives that have promised to bring new life to the church. Many of these have been commendable and have provided valuable resources and offered helpful insights to and for pastors like me as I have sought to lead the church. Yet even a cursory survey of the ecclesiastical landscape reveals that despite the implementation of new programs and strategies, an alarming number of churches are plateaued or declining. To borrow a common phrase, it is as if we have been "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." New life does not always accompany new programs. Perhaps the most helpful thing that a pastor can do to breathe new life into his church is not to introduce a new church growth model or to implement the latest church growth strategy. Rather, the most important thing a pastor can do may be to recall what the church really is and refocus his energy into what the gospel really does. The key to breathing new life into your church may not be in the discovery of something new. The key may be found in your discovery of a passionate recommitment to proclaiming something that is old.
The Gospel Transforms People
The word translated "church" is ekkle¯sia coming from two Greek words (ek kaleo¯) meaning "called out." The church then is the "called-out ones." As you have already observed, Paul's preaching impacted the Thessalonians in such a profound way that Jews, God-fearing Greeks, and "leading women" embraced his message. However, if you pick something up, it most often requires that you put something down. When these believers turned to God, they were turning away from their past way of life. One of the most fundamental truths of the gospel has been expressed in this way. When a person comes to know Jesus, they will know change and if there is no change, there is likely no Jesus (2 Cor 13:5).
God called many of the Thessalonians out of the legalism of Judaism, the emptiness of idol worship, and the bankruptcy of religious ritual. They abandoned their former lives "to serve the living and true God" (1:9). Their lives changed and changed radically. They were called out of darkness into light. They were called out of their sin and into sonship. Their new standing was on the basis that they were now "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:1b), which is the essence of what it means to be the church. I. Howard Marshall drives this truth home:
The Christian stands in such a relationship to Jesus that his life is determined by his death and resurrection, both that in and through Christ he is a new being and that he is summoned to live a new life in the fellowship of the church. The church, then, is constituted by its relationship to God the Father and to Jesus. (Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 49)
A church is not built on the foundation of programs or strategies, but on the Lord Jesus Christ. When the gospel penetrates hearts it transforms people. Transformed people constitute the church. This concept is the essence of the believers' church, and this was what Paul founded in Thessalonica.
The Gospel Transforms Position
For many years, the American Express Company told its customers that "membership has its privileges." The privileges of a credit card company may offer some short-term benefits, but they pale in comparison to the lasting riches that are guaranteed to those who are in Christ Jesus. To be a member of God's church means that you are the beneficiary of God's grace and peace. Notice that these are not rights to which you are entitled, they are gifts that are given to the church.
Grace: our standing before God. Before being transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, no person, regardless of how deserving or noble, enjoys a proper relationship with God. Sin, like a thick fog on the darkest of nights, blinds our eyes from seeing God for Who He is. Even our best efforts to cut through the fog and darkness prove to be woefully inadequate. Religion can't do it. Love for our fellow man can't do it. Our best intentions can't do it. We are like the travelers on the highway wanting so desperately to speed on ahead but unable to do so because we can't see beyond the hoods of our cars. You know the feeling of helplessness and frustration if you have ever been in that situation. The fog of our sin is just that way. It is simply too thick and there is nothing we can do to lift it. We are hopelessly lost and there is no way out. We may try to ignore it and press on recklessly, but on the horizon there is a precipice that is growing closer and closer. Many people live their lives in this way. Sin has blinded them and they cannot see. The prognosis is not good. There is a cliff in the distance, and it is called "judgment." They speed down life's highway oblivious to the imminent danger ahead.
Before we can have a relationship with God, God Himself must do something about the fog. He has to help us see through it. Here the good news enters the picture. God offers a way out through Jesus Christ. God lifts the fog by grace. Grace in its fullest expression is revealed by the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross. God "made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5:21). By His own initiative, God gives us a way out. The way out is a Person and His name is Jesus Christ. His forgiveness can't be earned ... it's a gift. The only way to get this forgiveness is to receive it as a gift (John 1:12). The only way to see God is to embrace Jesus.
The moment we receive Jesus our standing before God radically changes. We are immediately delivered from the fog and the darkness of our sin. Our citizenship is immediately transferred to a different kingdom, and we are clothed with a righteousness that is not our own (Col 1:13-14; Isa 61:10). God did not create the fog; we did. Yet because of His love for us, He provides a way out. God does for us what we could never do for ourselves. Through Christ we now stand in a proper relationship with God, and it is all because of His grace. Life's journey now takes on a new meaning. This is exactly what happened to the Thessalonians. When their standing before God changed, their lives changed because they were the recipients of God's grace.
Peace: our relationship with God. Sin not only destroys our standing before God, it also destroys our peace with God. Sin means war. You and I are at war with each other, and we are at war with God (Col 1:21). When we are at war, there is no real peace. It's no coincidence that public demand for sleep medication nets billions of dollars in revenue for pharmaceutical companies each year. Many of us can't rest peacefully at night because we aren't living with peace during the day. This includes peace in our relationships with others and peace in our relationship with God. The sobering reality is that people are looking for peace in all the wrong places. Jesus Christ offers a lasting peace—peace with one another, peace with yourself, but most important, peace with God.
Let's bring this into focus as it relates to the Thessalonians. An angry mob has stirred up their city, disrupted their fellowship, threatened their well-being, and chased away their friends. This is a recipe for sleepless nights and anxious days, right? Not exactly. You see, you could take away their stuff, but you could not take away their peace. If God's grace is real, then His peace is not only possible, but it is guaranteed. David declares that "the Protector of Israel does not slumber or sleep" (Ps 121:4). Since God is more than capable to keep watch over your life, there is no good reason why any follower of Jesus Christ should not be able to rest no matter how difficult the circumstances.
Indeed, Paul's time in Thessalonica was short. If we did not have access to the "rest of the story," we might readily conclude that his mission there was a failure. But as we have seen, the faith of these young Thessalonian believers was anything but superficial. They had a genuine love for Christ and a zealous passion for proclaiming His transforming gospel. Despite Paul's forceful eviction from the city, the faith of the Thessalonians persevered. Furthermore, although he was physically absent, his presence continued to be felt as he took up his pen and wrote his epistles. Even in the midst of the most troubling circumstances, God was doing His work in His way. Paul would never return to the city of Thessalonica, but God was going to do far more there than Paul ever could have imagined. As John Phillips insightfully notes,
The Holy Spirit showed Paul there was more than one way to evangelize a city. If he could not go back to Thessalonica in person he could write the church a letter.... A new method of evangelism was born—literature evangelism.... Down through the ages millions have been saved through reading those letters, and millions more have had their faith strengthened.... God knows how to overrule our mistakes. He makes the very wrath of man to praise Him. (Phillips, Exploring Acts, 341)
That is how God works. No matter how routine the details of your life may appear, not a single detail is wasted by God. If God can use angry mobs (Acts 17:5) and frustrated plans (1Thess 2:18) to bring about one of the most insightful and encouraging epistles in the New Testament, then you can be sure that He will also use your life experiences to bring about your ultimate good and His greater glory (Rom 8:28). While on this side of heaven you are afforded only an occasional glimpse of what He is doing in the world, you know that God is up to far more than you could ever imagine. The Thessalonians have long since been transported to their eternal home, but their faith continues to inspire and encourage. You stand on their shoulders. You also know that a day is coming when those who follow you will stand on yours. That's what it means to be a part of God's church.
Reflect and Discuss
- Why do you think so many people try to hide their problems from others when they go to church?
- What are some ways that you can encourage people in your church to be "real" with one another?
- What was it about the city of Thessalonica that made it such an important place to plant a church? How does it compare with your city?
- What was Paul's approach for sharing the gospel? How might you apply his principles?
- When you preach or teach, do you talk more about the Bible than you preach or teach from the Bible? How can you do a better job of helping people to see the text?
- What was the response to Paul's preaching in Thessalonica both positively and negatively? What kind of reaction can you anticipate from those who hear when you faithfully preach the exclusivity of Jesus Christ from the Scriptures?
- What single characteristic is common to every church? Is this the case in your church?
- How does adversity reveal the genuineness of one's salvation? How does it affect the genuineness of a church?
- What do grace and peace mean for your relationship with God? How do they affect your relationship with one another?
- How are you and your church actively pursuing your calling to advance the gospel?