First Thessalonians was the first of Paul's letters to these early churches. And though it was early in his experience, it in no way represents any immature ideas or half-baked thinking on Paul's part. By the time he penned this first letter he had been a Christian about eighteen years and had been engaged in his apostolic mission for about ten years. This represents, therefore, the thinking of a man who had not only grasped the basic principles of the Christian life, but was learning to put these principles into experience.
In this book he mentions that God had "approved" his ministry. This is a very interesting word. Archeologists have found this word, "dokimos," that is translated "approved," inscribed on the bottom of thousands of pieces of pottery as they have been excavating in Palestine. It seems that the potters had a practice of making a vessel, then putting it into a furnace to fire it. When they withdrew it, if it had stood the test of the firing, and there were no flaws or cracks in the vessel, they would take their stylus and write across the bottom, "dokimos" (approved) and as such it would be qualified for sale. But if it cracked, they would write "adokimos" on the bottom, disapproved, signifying it to be disqualified for use. It is a very interesting picture of Paul's ministry, because he is saying his ministry has been tested and he feels that God has given his stamp of approval and has written across his life "dokimos" (approved). So although this is an early writing from Paul's hand, it represents something of deep thought and personal experience.
We are going to begin our study where Paul does with this brief introduction. In chapter 1, verse 1, he writes,
Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
You will recognize that this is very similar to introductions to other books that Paul has written. It is, of course, the contemporary style of first-century letter writers. There is, first of all, a brief word about the letter writer, or writers in this case, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, this team of men who, along with Luke, had been engaged with Paul in his second missionary journey and had been traveling with him in Macedonia and Achaia, preaching the gospel and establishing churches. Now they are in Corinth and they join with Paul in sending this letter to the Thessalonian church. Then comes a word about the recipients, "the church of the Thessalonians," and a brief greeting, "Grace to you and peace" - "grace" being the Greek word of greeting, and "peace," the Hebrew word, "shalom."
The thing that is striking about this introduction is that Paul, perhaps without intending to, gives us a brief description of the church. He speaks first of all about the geographical location of the church as being in Thessalonica, but, far more important, he says that this is the church "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." This is a church composed of individuals who know God in a personal way, who have entered into his family, and who have become sons of God on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. Secondly, these are people who have put themselves under the authority of Jesus Christ. They know him as Lord. This, of course, was the burden of Paul's teaching in Thessalonica (Acts 17). The magistrates of the city had leveled a charge of treason against Paul because he preached another king, Jesus. They did not realize that this king was no threat to their rule in Thessalonica. Paul was saying that Jesus Christ seeks to reign in a human life, and this was what the believers had come to experience. They knew God as Father and they knew Jesus Christ as God.
It is easy to see from this that Paul is not talking about an organization or some association of people in Thessalonica, but he is talking about individuals, because organizations or associations cannot have a relationship to God, and they cannot know Jesus Christ as Lord. He is talking about people who know God. And of course, this is what a church is. A church is not a building. it is not an organization, it is people. Now I am sure we all understand this, but it is important to see, as we study this book, that when Paul talks about the church, he is not talking about the organizational church, he is talking about the individual. And while we are going to be looking at the marks of an organized church, essentially we are speaking about the church as individuals, about you and me. And when we talk about the marks of a growing church, we do not mean that we are adding to business plan, or that we have pews in our auditorium now, or that our budget is increasing; we are talking about men and women who are growing in their knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Now in the following verses, Paul turns from this brief definition of a church, to a description of a vital church.
We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you, for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivered us from the wrath to come. (I Thess. 1:6-10)
In the opening verses of this chapter Paul puts his finger on the characteristics of a maturing church. He indicates they had a work that proceeded from faith; a labor that was the result of their love; and a steadfastness or patience that was the product of their hope. Paul looks at these three characteristics from two standpoints. First, he looks at the attitude that inspires them, the attitudes of faith, love, and hope. Then he changes his perspective and he looks at the actions that follow: their work, their labor, and their patience. Now I think it is important that Paul so states this truth, because both perspectives are important. Our attitudes are important, and our actions are important. We must start with right attitudes because they are the key to right conduct and right activity. So much of Christian activity is trivial and worthless, because our attitudes are wrong. Our actions look good externally but the motives that precipitate these actions are wrong. For instance, Paul writes to the church in Rome and he points out to them that "whatever is not of faith is sin. "The point is that any activity can be sin if it does not proceed from an attitude of rest and confidence in God. It can be constructive, it can be religious, but if the activity is not sourced in an attitude of faith it is worse than ineffective; it is sin.So the attitude is important. Now in another place, where Paul writes to the church in Corinth in regard to love, he says that we may be wise and we may be noble, we may be altruistic, we may even become a martyr and give our bodies to be burned, but if we have not love it profits nothing. It is worthless and sterile. So the heart attitude is the key to any activity. but actions are not unimportant, because actions reveal the attitude.
James writes. "You say that you have faith? That is good, but you must show me your faith by your works because faith without works is dead." It is useless, powerless and inert. Faith if it is real faith, always projects itself into some kind of activity. We cannot see love, but we can see people acting in love toward one another. In fact, the Scriptures always define love in this way. You search in vain for any specific definition of love. It seems to be defined in terms of functions. For instance, John writes of love: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and gave his Son to be the satisfaction for us." We cannot see love, but if we observe God and his actions toward men, we can see something of the nature of love and how it functions. In I Corinthians 13, Paul gives us the catalog of the outworking of love. Love is patient, love is kind, love has good manners, love does not envy. These are all functional definitions of love. You cannot see hope, the attitude of confidence that God is absolutely faithful and that he is pursuing his program and that in his sovereignty, everything is moving toward a purpose. But you can see the action of patience and steadfastness that hope produces. And so I see both of these as vital: the attitudes, and the actions. Now this week and in subsequent weeks we are going to be looking at these three marks of maturity. The degree to which we are. growing in comprehension of these principles is the degree to which we are growing in maturity.
First, we want to look at Paul's statement concerning the active, quality of their faith -- a faith that works. First, the attitude. What is faith? That is a very difficult question to answer, but I think there are some clues in this book. Paul says that this is a pattern church -- that by looking at this church we can see something of God's pattern for all believers. The first word of their faith is found in verses 8 and 9.
For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols,
This says that people in the provinces of Macedonia and Achala had heard the startling fact that down in Thessalonica, something had happened. These people who formerly had been worshiping idols had turned to God. In fact, it put the apostle Paul out of work! He did not have to say anything, because the whole world was talking about this remarkable reversal. They turned to God from idols.
The first thing I note here is that men are obliged to have faith in something. They must depend upon something or somebody. Man is never really independent. The option is never faith or nonfaith. The question is: what is the object of faith? We are either trusting in idols or we are trusting in God. These are the only two options.
Now of course, an idol may not necessarily be a piece of wood or metal. Augustine said, "That thing that precipitates the predominant thought in our mind, that is our idol." What is the thing that pops into your mind when we shift our minds into neutral? It's somewhat like a yo-yo: you throw it away and it comes back, and you throw it away and it comes back. The thought that comes back -- that idea is our idol. That is the aspect on which we are basing our life. Now an idol can be a lot of things. An idol can be a person; a husband or a wife, or a child. era boyfriend, or a girlfriend it can be a thing: a car, house, job, or a four-point average for a student. Or it can be ourselves: our confidence in ourselves, in our ability to match wits with the world, our command and grasp of every situation. But of course, the problem with an idol is that it always tends to disappoint us. If it becomes the sole source of our support it tends to break down. It cannot bear our full weight. This is why we get so frustrated and bitter and resentful at times. The things in which we trusted most have let us down. But when we do as the Thessalonians did, when we turn from idols to God (and I think this is not just a once-for-all practice, but a continuing principle of Christian living, of constantly turning from the things that we would depend upon, and resting upon God), then things begin to happen in our life. We find that Jesus Christ, as the One in whom we place our confidence, is always. in every circumstance, an adequate resource for living. He never disappoints us. He never breaks down under pressure, he is always available, 24 hours a day, to live in us the same quality of life that he lived twenty centuries ago in these believers in this little town of Thessalonica. It was true of them, and it can be true of us. I need to take a good look at myself in this regard, as we all must constantly appraise our attitudes. What am I really trusting in? What is my source of confidence? What am I resting on? Is it an idol, or is it God? Jeremiah the prophet wrote (Chapter. 17:5-8):
Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited.
When I was in the service I was stationed for a time in Camp Irwin, close to Barstow, California, right out in the middle of the Mojave desert. I gained a real appreciation for some of the desert shrubs that have to live in that environment. I found out what a "heath in the desert "is. It is a bush that gets along on a bare subsistence level. When the full force of the sun is felt during the summer they drop their leaves and appear to die. For all practical purposes they are inert. They are existing, but with no real quality of life. To place our trust in the arm of flesh is to live the same barren, existence.
Blessed is the man that trusteth In the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters,and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when the heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
Now I have to ask myself, "What am I trusting in?" If I am looking for the quality of life that will draw men to Jesus Christ, if I am looking for a resource for all of life to meet the demands of my life, I find that the only adequate resource for life is Jesus Christ.
Now I see a second principle in the same verse, and that is that faith is only as good as its object. There is no value in faith itself; faith can be misplaced. We can put our confidence in something that has no ultimate power or potency and find that our faith is vain. The force that makes faith work is God's power. Two of our college students are licensed private pilots. They haven't asked me yet, but someday they are going to ask me to go up and take a spin. Let us imagine that we have set a date, and on the appointed day I go to the airport to meet them. They roll back the hangar doors and one says, "Well, there it is!" And there is this bi-plane of World War I vintage, with one wing drooping and a flat tire, held together by a couple turns of baling wire and bubble gum, and he says, "Isn't that a beauty?" I say, "Frankly, it looks like a piece of junk to me." He says, "No, it's really a very stable craft. Help me push it out." So we push it out on the runway and he says, "All right, are you ready to fly?" I say, "Well, no, I think I'm going to stay on the ground." And he says, "What's the matter, don't you have any faith?" I say, "Well, sure, I have faith in you, but I don't have any faith in that plane. And to go up in that plane wouldn't be any expression of faith, it would be sheer stupidity!" I think this is the point that Paul is making, that faith of itself is of no consequence. Faith has to be resting upon an object that is valid and worthwhile.
Now what do we know about God? I wish we had time to really go into this in depth, because the book of I Thessalonians itself is a study in the character of God. I would commend this to you on your own, to read what Paul says about God and what he does and what he is. But we don't have to go far because Paul picks up the point immediately in this verse (verse 9). He says first "you turned from idols to serve a living God." We serve a living God who is alert and available and active in the world, living today in power and accessible to each one of us. Secondly, Paul says that we serve a true God. If God is not true, whom else can we trust? The Scriptures tell us that he is absolutely faithful. Paul writes to Titus on another occasion and refers him to the "God who cannot lie." God never misleads us; he always loves us enough to tell us the truth. He is absolutely faithful. At the end of this book, in chapter 5, verse 23, Paul says,
May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
There is a process at stake. God is building into every life the qualities of life that we are looking for. He is equipping us to be what we were intended to be, men and women who are totally available to God, to be his instruments in the world. He has called us to this and Paul says that God is faithful to do it. We can trust him. He is bound by his own word.
Then in verse 10 of chapter 1, Paul goes on to point out that they turned from idols to God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead. He has the power of a resurrection life in his hands. There are other things we could say about God. Obviously this does not exhaust his character, but it does give us a glimpse of the One who is the object of our faith and why our faith is valid. God himself is worthy of our commitment and our trust.
There is a third principle of faith I see in chapter 2. verse 13.
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers [or, literally, "you men of faith"]
He said that when Paul came to Thessalonica and preached Jesus Christ, they accepted it without argument. This indicates another principle of faith. Faith, basically, is taking God at his word. Faith is the stance that we take on his authority. It is the determination to do what he says without quibbling, without second-guessing, without trying to be a Monday morning quarterback, without accepting our analysis of circumstances. Just doing what be asks us to do.
There are so many illustrations of this in the Scriptures. I recently ran across one in the twenty-seventh chapter of Acts, in the account of Paul's journey aboard ship to Rome; As they were en route~a storm came up and the mariners began to panic and prepared to abandon ship. In verse 22 Paul speaks to them, Men, you should have listened to me, and should not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, "Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you." So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.
"I have faith in God that it will be exactly as/have been told."
Now that is what faith is all about; a tenacious, unremitting hold on God's word, a sturdy determination to believe God despite outward circumstances.
Now the thing that comes to mind is, what do we think about his promises when we face the daily round of problems in which all of us are involved? How do we react when things begin to run against us; when the dishwasher breaks down, the kids have chicken pox, the income tax is due and undone, and the house is a mess'? In the face of this, can we remember the firm word of Scripture, "My God is able to meet your needs according to his riches in glory through Christ Jesus .'' Because that is where faith has to work, right down in the daily problems of life. Taking God's word and applying it to a specific situation and holding on to it no matter what circumstances tell us. How do we react in a hostile world, in an office or on a campus. where we are called upon to lift up Jesus Christ? The word of Scripture is, "Take no thought how or what you should speak; for it shall be given you in that same hour what you shall speak. " Or Isaiah's words,"The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I might know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary. "We discover that, by stepping out on those promises, the ground proves firm. We are secure. God has not misled us. By placing our confidence in him we discover that he is really adequate for everything that be says he is going to do. Or we have an impossible assignment to face, a workload that demands more in terms of time or energy than we could ever accomplish. Paul writes, "God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we could ever ask or think. "Or that "we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. "Now this is God speaking. These are his promises. And when we see our problems against the backdrop of these promises, they become very inconsequential. That is how faith behaves, it takes God at his word. I suppose Abraham is the classic example. He was in his nineties; the Scriptures say his body was as good as dead, but God says, "Abraham, you're going to have a son, and through this seed I am going to make a great nation." The translation obscures a bit of Abraham's answer, but essentially. what he said was, "Amen. I believe it, so be it. let's get on with it, Lord." This is how faith responds. It simply takes God at his word.
Chapter three adds another dimension to faith. Tests reveal the quality of our faith. Faith shows its true colors under pressure. But I would like to move through this to the activity of faith. We have looked at the attitude of faith and have seen some description of a valid faith, but now, just what does faith do? Faith produces works. Faith is valid because it is productive. I am firmly convinced that any activity in the world that is grounded in a confidence upon God is going to be significant. It may not look good in terms of the world's evaluation, but in terms of eternity and God's purposes in the world, it is intensely significant.
During the Vietnam war era, I talked with a young man at a local university who was manning a "peace table" in front of the Student Center. I asked him something of his program, and the particular group with which he was associated, and what they were doing about the world situation. (We both had to admit that the world is in bad shape.) He began to list some of the activities that they were engaged in, the sort of thing that we have come to associate with passive resistance. As I was listening, the Lord brought to mind a statement in the book of Hebrews and I drew out my New Testament and read these words in chapter 11, verse 32:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets -- who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
As I read this to the student, I am sure it did not impress him at all, but it suddenly impressed me intensely with the fact that it is in the very areas today where we seethe most strife and turmoil and struggles of men against men that faith can be brought to bear. I saw that faith is the answer to every problem the world is facing. Not that this involves inactivity on our part, because God may call us to become personally involved in repressing some of the world ills. But I saw that any activity that is resting upon a concerned, Omnipotent God, is going to produce lasting results, because it is a means of tapping the resources of an infinite Lord and bringing them to bear on specific problems that we have to face.
Now this is true of matters of worldwide import; it is also true of the most personal and intimate problems of our life. Faith is the means of moving men and changing circumstances and changing ourselves through God. We can take just one area of our lives that is troubling us. We can begin to ask God to move in that area to change our lives, to change our activities, make us the kind of men and women that we want to be, and we will discover that he will do it. Faith really works.
King David's life so beautifully exemplifies the Christian experience. The story of David's encounter with Goliath is a fine illustration of faith and how it may move out against insuperable odds with seemingly inadequate resources. But the thing that perplexed me when I first began to study his life was why David picked five stones for his sling when he stopped at the brook on his way to encounter Goliath. I am convinced that the Scriptures never just use words -- the number of stones had to be significant -- but the longer I pondered the more perplexed I became. Why five stones? There was only one giant. and it seemed to me to be a flaw in his faith. Did he think he was going to miss and that he would have four more chances? Some time later I was reading in II Samuel, and I got the answer. Goliath had four sons, and so there were five giants. And so in David's reckoning there was one stone per giant! Now this is what I mean about being specific in our faith.
What is your giant, what is mine? We discover that faith will work, right there in the very specific problems that we have to face. "Faith is the victory, "the Scriptures say, "that overcomes the world.
David H. Roper
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