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Lesson 1: The Church that Makes an Impact (1 Thessalonians 1:1-2)

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July 10, 2016

I am often haunted by the thought that if Flagstaff Christian Fellowship ceased to exist this week, our city would not miss us because we have not made much of an impact here. They might wonder why our historic building was empty. Eventually, they would probably turn it into a quaint coffee shop or bar. But they wouldn’t think much about our departure because we have not really changed the life of this city in any obvious way.

But that could not be said of the Thessalonian church. When it began, the hostile opposition dragged some of the new believers before the city officials with the accusation (Acts 17:6), “These men who have upset the world have come here also.” The new church made such an impact, not only in that city, but also in the surrounding region, that people reported back to Paul the dramatic changes that had happened to these believers (1 Thess. 1:7-9). It was not a perfect church—there never has been such—but it is the only church in the New Testament of which Paul speaks as a positive example for other churches (1 Thess. 1:7).

The church had its start sometime in AD 49 or 50, when Paul and his companions, Silas and Timothy, visited this city of about 200,000 people on his second missionary journey. He and Silas had just been unjustly beaten and thrown into jail in Philippi, where God used them to found the first church on European soil. After the earthquake and the conversion of the Philippian jailer, the city officials begged them to leave. So they made their way west along the Egnatian Way, approximately 100 miles to this major city, which was the capital of one of four districts in Macedonia. It enjoyed local autonomy as a Roman colony and was the most prosperous city in Macedonia.

Unlike Philippi, there were enough Jews in Thessalonica to warrant a synagogue. As a visiting rabbi, trained under the renowned Gamaliel, Paul was permitted to speak, which he did for three consecutive Sabbaths (Acts 17:3), “explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’” As a result, some of the Jews were persuaded, along with many God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women (Acts 17:4).

We don’t know exactly how long Paul stayed in Thessalonica. It could have been as short as a month, indicated by the three Sabbaths. Or, the “three Sabbaths” could refer to his ministry in the synagogue only, which was followed by a longer time of preaching to the Gentiles. Paul mentions his example of working at his trade when he was among them (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:6-9), which probably indicates a longer stay. And he received financial help from the Philippians more than once while he was in Thessalonica (Phil. 4:16), which would have required some time. The depth of doctrinal teaching that Paul reminds them of in this letter seems like too much to cram into a month. And, Paul seems to have designated some men as leaders before he left (1 Thess. 5:12). So perhaps he was there a few months.

But after a while, out of jealousy, the Jews who did not believe formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. They attacked the house of a new believer named Jason, thinking that they would find Paul and his companions inside. When they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city authorities with the charge of welcoming these world-upsetting strangers, who they claimed acted “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). The officials responded calmly, taking a pledge or bond from Jason and releasing him.

But to avoid further trouble, the church sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea (Acts 17:10), about 50 miles to the west. Paul found receptive hearts there until some of the unbelieving Thessalonian Jews arrived and stirred up more trouble. Paul then put out to sea for Athens, while Silas and Timothy stayed behind for a while (Acts 17:14), later joining him in Athens. Paul wanted to return to Thessalonica to see how these new converts were doing, but Satan somehow hindered him (1 Thess. 2:18). So he sent Timothy back. Although Acts doesn’t say, Silas may have gone back to Philippi, leaving Paul alone in Athens (1 Thess. 3:1-2).

Both men later rejoined Paul after he had moved to Corinth (Acts 18:1, 5; 1 Thess. 3:6). Timothy brought good news about the believers in Thessalonica, along with a few concerns. So Paul sent him back with 1 Thessalonians, written six months to a year after Paul had left there. Second Thessalonians was written a few months later. The church had probably grown more among the Gentile population than among the Jews (1 Thess. 1:9). Paul expresses his heartfelt thanks to God for their conversion. But because of Timothy’s report of some attacks on Paul from the Jews, Paul felt obligated to defend his conduct and motives when he had been with them (1 Thess. 2:1-12). He also was concerned because the Thessalonians were experiencing ongoing persecution, most of it from the Jews (1 Thess. 2:14-16; 3:3-5). He wanted to make sure that they stood firm.

Also, Timothy had reported to Paul some concerns about the Thessalonians’ confusion over some matters related to the Lord’s return. Some were not working because they thought that Christ’s coming was near (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:6-13). Others were grieving excessively because some of their loved ones had died and they were uncertain what would happen to those who died before the Lord’s return. There was also some confusion about the events surrounding the “day of the Lord.” So much of both 1 & 2 Thessalonians focuses on “last times” issues.

There are several ways to outline any biblical book. John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 20) suggests analyzing the book from the perspective of the church and the gospel. He says that Paul “shows how the gospel creates the church and the church spreads the gospel, and how the gospel shapes the church …” His outline is (ibid.):

  1. Christian evangelism, how the church spreads the gospel (1:1-10)
  2. Christian ministry, how pastors serve both the gospel and the church (2:1-3:13)
  3. Christian behavior, how the church must live according to the gospel (4:1-12)
  4. Christian hope, how the gospel should inspire the church (4:13-5:11)
  5. Christian community, how to be a gospel church (5:12-28).

My outline breaks the book into two parts: Paul’s personal interest in the Thessalonians and his practical instructions for them:

Salutation (1:1)

1. Paul’s personal interest in the Thessalonians (1:2-3:13)

A. His interest shown by his prayers for them (1:2-10)

B. His interest shown by his past conduct with them (2:1-16)

1) He imparted to them not only the gospel, but also his own life (2:1-8)

2) His conduct reinforced the truth of the gospel (2:9-12)

3. As a result, they received his message as the word of God, enabling them to endure persecution (2:13-16).

C. His interest shown by his present concern for them (2:17-3:13)

2. Paul’s practical instructions for the Thessalonians (4:1-5:22)

A. Instructions concerning Christian conduct (4:1-12)

1) Moral purity (4:1-8)

2) Love for the brethren (4:9-12)

B. Instructions concerning deceased Christians (4:13-18)

C. Instructions concerning the Day of the Lord (5:1-11)

D. Instructions concerning conduct in the church (5:12-22)

1) The church’s attitude toward the leaders (5:12-13)

2) The leaders’ ministry toward the church (5:14-15)

3) The church’s practice of joy, prayer, & thankfulness (5:16-18)

4) The church’s practice toward the Spirit, prophecy, and spiritual discernment (5:19-22)

Conclusion (5:23-28): Prayer for their sanctification (5:23); encouragement regarding God’s faithfulness (5:24); Paul’s request for their prayers (5:25); Christian greetings (5:26); public reading of this letter (5:27); and, prayer for the Lord’s grace to be with them (5:28).

It’s difficult to know how much to include in this first message, since after Paul’s salutation, his first sentence goes from verse 2 through verse 5. But there’s too much to cover in those verses. So I’m limiting this message to verses 1-2, where we learn:

The church that makes an impact consists of people transformed by the gospel.

Note two things:

1. The church that makes an impact is a local community of people who are in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:1: “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.” Also, note verse 5a: “for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; …” Conspicuously absent from this greeting is Paul’s identification of himself as an apostle, which he uses in all his other letters, except for 2 Thessalonians and Philippians. Apparently he did not feel a need to remind this young church of his apostolic authority.

Paul includes Silas (Silvanus is the Latin form) and Timothy, who were with him at the founding of the church. They may have had some part with Paul in writing this letter, as seen by the frequent use of the first person plural (1 Thess. 1:2, 3. 5. 6, 8, 9; 2:1, 2, etc.), although Paul was mainly responsible for the content. Or, perhaps he included them because of their help in founding the church. Silas was a Jewish believer and gifted prophet whom the apostles in Jerusalem appointed to carry the directives of the Jerusalem Council to Antioch (Acts 15:22-35). Paul chose Silas to accompany him on his second missionary journey after he and Barnabas had a falling out over Mark.

Timothy was a young man from Lystra, who had a Gentile father and a Jewish mother (Acts 16:1-3). He became like a faithful son in the faith to Paul. He accompanied Paul on missionary journeys and Paul sent him on various pastoral assignments. Luke does not mention Timothy in the account of the founding of this church (in Acts 17), but he was with Paul both earlier and later on the same journey. Since Paul includes his name in the salutation, we can assume that he had a part in bringing the gospel to this city.

Paul addresses the letter to “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The etymology of the Greek word for “church” literally means, “called-out ones,” but it was widely used to refer to various assemblies of people, both religious and secular. It is used a few times to refer to Israel as God’s people (Deut. 4:10; 23:2; Acts 7:38; Heb. 2:12, citing Ps. 22:22; [21:22 in the LXX]). But in the New Testament, it has special reference to the one body of Christ that began on the Day of Pentecost, consisting of born again Jews and Gentiles (Gal. 3:28). In the New Testament, church can be used to describe all Christians everywhere (the universal church) or a local congregation that is usually designated by the city where the believers live.

In The Church: The Gospel Made Visible ([B&H Academic], pp. x, xi), Mark Dever writes,

The church should be regarded as important to Christians because of its importance to Christ. Christ founded the church (Matt. 16:18), purchased it with his blood (Acts 20:28), and intimately identifies himself with it (Acts 9:4). The church is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12, 27; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:12; 5:20-30; Col. 1:18, 24; 3:15), the dwelling place of his Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:18, 22; 4:4), and the chief instrument for glorifying God in the world (Ezek. 36:22-38; Eph. 3:10). Finally, the church is God’s instrument for bringing both the gospel to the nations and a great host of redeemed humanity to himself (Luke 24:46-48; Rev. 5:9).

The distinctive about Paul’s mention of the church in our text is that it is “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” To refer to the church as “in God” rather than the church “of God” is unusual in Paul’s writings (F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary [Thomas Nelson], p. 7). We should probably understand it in the same way as our being “in Christ,” a favorite designation of Paul. It means that we are identified completely with Him. We are organically “in Him” as the branch is in the vine (John 15:1-6). Or, as Paul writes (Col. 3:3), “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Also, to know God as Father is a distinctive of New Testament Christianity. In his classic, Knowing God ([IVP], p. 181), J. I. Packer asks, “What is a Christian?” He answers, “The question can be answered in many ways, but the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God for his Father.” He adds (p. 182):

You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.

From the earliest stage of our Christian life, we should know God as our Father. He loves us and cares for us far more than any earthly father ever could.

The fact that Paul mentions “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” under a single preposition shows that he had already taught these new believers, from both Jewish and pagan backgrounds, about the deity of Jesus. To call Jesus “Lord” was to use of Him the Old Testament name, Yahweh, the God of Israel. As Stott says (ibid. p. 27), “Already within twenty years of the death and resurrection of Jesus the coupling of the Father and the Son as equal is the universal faith of the church.” To distinguish God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ shows that they are two persons. “Lord” refers to His deity; “Jesus” to His humanity; and “Christ” to His office as the promised anointed deliverer of God’s people.

Also, in verses 5 & 6 Paul mentions the Holy Spirit, whose power applied the gospel to the hearts of the Thessalonians, evidenced by their joy in the midst of much persecution. So in his short time with these new believers, Paul had grounded them in the doctrine of the trinity, including the deity of Jesus Christ. The fact that he doesn’t stop here to explain it more carefully shows that he assumed that they would be tracking with him.

Paul also adds, “Grace to you and peace.” “Grace” (charis) is a variation of the normal Greek greeting, charein, meaning “rejoice.” The heart of the gospel is that God’s grace or unmerited favor is extended to sinners. Because Christ paid the penalty for all our sins on the cross, God’s holy justice is satisfied so that He can extend a free pardon to sinners who will receive it. When Moses asked God to reveal His glory, the Lord replied (Exod. 33:18), “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” To be gracious is who God is!

“Peace” was the normal Hebrew greeting, “Shalom.” We have peace with God because He is gracious to us in Christ, who broke down the barrier of the dividing wall and abolished the decrees that were hostile toward us (Eph. 2:14-15; Col. 2:14).

So the main idea here is that the church is not a building; it’s not an organized religious social club that does good deeds. Rather, the church is a local community of people who are “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is people transformed by the gospel who now are united to each other and distinct from the world because they all are “in God and in Christ.” That leads to the second idea:

2. The church that makes an impact is the work of God, not of men.

1 Thessalonians 1:2: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers ….” Why does Paul give thanks to God, rather than commending the Thessalonians for their wise decision to believe in Christ? He gives the answer in verse 4: He thanks God because He chose the Thessalonian believers for salvation. In verse 5 he adds that their salvation through the gospel was due to the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3), being in God’s kingdom is not a matter of religious observance (as the Pharisees thought), but rather depends on the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit who gives new life.

That’s the consistent teaching of the New Testament. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Paul emphasizes God’s choice of them apart from any human qualifications they possessed:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

We’ll consider this further when we study 1 Thessalonians 1:4, but for now, ask yourself, “Has God changed my heart from unbelief to faith in Jesus Christ? Has He changed my desires from worldly pursuits to seeking first His kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33)? Has He changed my aim from seeking my glory to seeking His glory (1 Cor. 10:31)? Has He changed my focus from wanting to please myself to wanting to please Him (Rom. 15:2-3; Col. 1:10)? Has He changed me from loving darkness and hating the light to loving the light and hating darkness (John 3:19-21)?

In other words, true Christianity is not a moral improvement project that anyone can work on if they set the right goals and use the right methods. Rather, it’s a matter of moving from death to life (Eph. 2:1-6), from blindness to light (John 8:12; 9:1-41), and from hardness to tenderness of heart (Eph. 4:17-24). Only God, through the life-giving power of Holy Spirit, can do that.

Conclusion

Pastor Darrell Gustafson recently wrote (Biblical Counseling Training newsletter, June, 2016), “Counselors, across the US, say that 75% of those coming for counseling think that they are Christians but are not converted.” I think that because of a weak “gospel,” centered on how God can solve your problems and make you happy, rather than on how God has provided a Savior from sin and judgment, there are many in evangelical churches who think they’re saved, but are not. They heard the pitch for an abundant life and prayed to receive Jesus. But they never were convicted of their sins, repented, and truly trusted in Christ. For the church to make an impact, we have to be a church where we all have been transformed by the power of God through the gospel.

We’ll see more of what that means in the rest of 1 Thessalonians 1. But the main thing to answer is, “Has God changed my heart by enabling me to trust in Jesus Christ as my only hope for eternal life?” As Paul wrote (2 Cor. 13:5), “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” If we want to make an impact on our city, our lives must be distinct from those around us. We must have lives that have been transformed by the gospel.

Application Questions

  1. Do you agree that we haven’t made a significant impact on our city? If so, why not? How can we change this?
  2. Obviously, sanctification is a lifelong process. So, how much change is needed to authenticate a persons’ salvation?
  3. Many professing Christians today are not committed to a local church. Why is this? How can we change this?
  4. Paul tells us to examine ourselves as to whether we’re in the faith. But too much introspection can be harmful. Where’s the balance?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Ecclesiology (The Church)

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