When we were studying Daniel 11 a few weeks ago we saw how the Lord announced to Daniel that a wicked king would appear near the end of human history who will do as he pleases; and he will exalt and magnify himself above every god; and he will set himself up against the Lord. And I explained that the description of that wicked king matches the description the Apostle Paul gives us in 2 Thessalonians of ‘the man of lawlessness’ who will appear before the coming of the Lord. This man of lawlessness, Paul says,
will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God….
He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. This man of lawlessness — who is associated with Satan — will oppose God; and will set himself up in the place of God; and will use all kinds of displays of power to deceive people.
So, the Lord spoke to Daniel about a wicked king who is coming; and the Apostle Paul refers to this wicked king as ‘the man of lawlessness’. And since there’s that connection between the book of Daniel — which we’ve just finished — and Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, then I thought it would make sense for us to study 1 and 2 Thessalonians on Sunday evenings.
And, of course, there’s another connection, isn’t there? Not only did the Lord speak to Daniel about the coming of this wicked king, but he also referred to the coming of the Lord Jesus and to the resurrection of the dead, when those who never believed will be raised to shame and everlasting contempt, but those who believed in Christ the Saviour will be raised to everlasting life and they will shine like the stars. The Lord spoke to Daniel about the coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead; and throughout his two letters to the Thessalonians, Paul also refers to the coming of the Lord and to the resurrection of the dead. In fact, every chapter of these two letters contains a reference to the end times and to the coming of Christ in glory and with power. So, just as Daniel was about the last things, so Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are also about the last things. And so, it makes sense to turn from Daniel to 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
Let me give you a little background to these letters. The city of Thessalonica was about 100 miles from Philippi and it was the capital of the province of Macedonia. Today it’s the second largest city in Greece. And we can read about Paul’s visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17 where we read that, having left Philippi, he passed through Am-phip-olis and A-poll-on-ia, and arrived at Thessalonica. There he found a Jewish synagogue; and, as was his custom, he went into the synagogue and spent the next three Sabbaths teaching the people from the Scriptures that the Christ the King had to suffer and rise from the dead. He then explained to them that Jesus is the Christ. We’re told in Acts 17 that some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and some prominent women. And so, a little church was formed out of the preaching of the gospel about Jesus Christ.
However, the Jews who did not believe were jealous. And so, we’re told that they rounded up some bad characters and formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They went to look for Paul and Silas in the home of a man called Jason, who was presumably one of the new believers. When they couldn’t find Paul and Silas, they dragged Jason and some of the other Christians before the city officials and accused them of rebelling against the Roman Emperor.
Well, because of the opposition, the believers decided to send Paul and Silas away to nearby Berea where Paul continued to preach about the Lord. However, when the Jews in Thessalonica found out that Paul was in Berea, such was the intensity of their opposition to the gospel, that they went to Berea in order to stir up the people there against Paul and Silas. And so, once again Paul had to leave.
Well, some time later, Timothy came to Paul with news about the church in Thessalonica; and Paul decided to write these two letters to them. And so, he’s writing to a church which he planted when he went to the city and preached the goods news about Jesus Christ. However, almost immediately after this new church was planted, Paul and the new converts learned what it means to suffer for Christ and his gospel.
And so, that’s the background to 1 and 2 Thessalonians. And you’ll see from verse 1 of chapter 1 that this letter was written by Paul — although he also mentions that Silas and Timothy are with him — and he addresses the letter to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And in his greeting to them, he prays that they will have grace and peace.
Well, in the first century, the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ which we translate as ‘church’ was an ordinary word without any particular religious association; and it referred to any kind of public assembly. Whenever a group of people gathered together, there you had an assembly, an ekklesia. However, the assembly of men and women and children to which Paul was writing was a special kind of assembly, wasn’t it? It was an assembly — Paul says in verse 1 — who met ‘in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. In other words, this was a Christian assembly: an assembly which was brought into being by God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ; and an assembly which was devoted to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And, of course, in Belfast today, there are lots of different assemblies and associations and organisations and clubs, all devoted to one thing or another. However, then there are Christian assemblies, where God’s people gather together to hear God’s word and to give thanks to him.
Well, later in this opening chapter — down in verse 7 — Paul refers to this particular Christian church in Thessalonica as being a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. He’s using the word ‘model’ in the sense that here’s a church which other churches should emulate or copy. They’re an example to other churches. Other churches should try to mould themselves into becoming like this church. And that’s really quite a compliment, isn’t it? If you were a member of the church in Thessalonica and you heard the great Apostle Paul saying this about your church, you’d be delighted, wouldn’t you?
So, let’s see what Paul says about this model church in chapter 1, because it should be our ambition as well to become a model church. We should aspire to be a model church for other churches to copy. And there are four points to make about this model church.
Verses 2 and 3
And the first thing we learn about this model church is in verses 2 and 3 where Paul describes how he always give thanks to God for them and for their work produced by faith, their labour prompted by love, and their endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, he mentions their work produced by faith. If you know anything about Paul’s letters, then you’ll know that one of his big themes is the relationship between faith and works. He is very clear that sinners are justified — which means we’re pardoned and accepted by God — through faith alone and not by works. We’re not justified by works: by the good things we do. And we’re not justified by faith and works: a mixture of believing in Christ and doing good ourselves. No, we’re justified through faith alone in Christ alone. Whoever believes is pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in his sight. Paul is very clear about that.
However, Paul is also clear that true faith will always lead to good works. The person who truly believes is filled with the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us. And that means believers will inevitably turn from their sins more and more and instead do good more and more. And so, Paul gives thanks to the Lord because he’s aware that the faith of the believers in this model church in Thessalonica is not alone, but is accompanied by good deeds. They want to obey the Lord more and more and to do his will more and more.
Furthermore, he gives thank to the Lord for their labour prompted by love. Well, husbands know that the way to demonstrate your love for your wife is not so much by saying it — though that’s important — but the way to demonstrate your love is by doing things for your wife. Has she asked you to do something, some little job around the house? Well, although you may want to sit in front of the TV and take it easy, you’ll get up and do what she’s asked. That’s the way to demonstrate your love. And it’s the same in the church. We’re not to love one another in word only, but in action and with deeds. By getting up and helping one another. And it seems that the members of this model church in Thessalonica were loving one another like this.
And then Paul gives thanks because of their endurance inspired by hope. Well, we’ve been learning from Daniel how believers need to stand firm and remain faithful in these, the last days, because we will face many trials and troubles; and there are many who hate the Lord and his gospel; and who will oppose and persecute the Christian church. And the believers in Thessalonica knew this personally, because they too faced troubles and trials. Just think again of the reaction of the unbelieving Jews to Paul and his ministry in Thessalonica and Berea; think again of how they falsely accused the believers before the city officials. In the face of such opposition, the believers in Thessalonica had learned to endure and to stand firm and to remain faithful. And what was the secret of their endurance? Well, the secret of their endurance was hope. They put their hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, who has promised to come again; and when he comes, all the troubles and trials of this life — all the sorrow and sadness of this life — will pass away; and God’s faithful people will enjoy perfect peace and rest in his presence forever. Like the Lord Jesus Christ — who for the joy set before him — endured the cross, so they too — for the joy set before them — learned to endure all things.
And so, Paul gave thanks to the Lord for this model church and for their work produced by their faith; and for their labour prompted by their love; and for their endurance inspired by hope. Well, there’s an example for us to follow. Having believed, we’re to turn from our sin more and more and we’re to learn to obey the Lord and to do his will more and more. And we’re to love one another in practical ways, labouring, says Paul, which conveys the idea of working hard to love and serve one another. And even though we face troubles and trials — and many of us suffer in many ways — we’re to endure all things, because of the great hope we have of better things to come when Christ comes again.
Verses 4 and 5
Well, what else does Paul say about this model church? Look now at verses 4 and 5 where he makes clear that this church began because of the electing love of God and because of the word of God.
Paul writes in verse 4 that he knows that God has chosen them. Well, many people don’t like the idea of election or the idea that God chooses some to be his people. It doesn’t seem fair to them that God should choose one person and not another person. Or it makes more sense to them to believe that we’re the ones who choose to believe. God doesn’t choose me; I choose him. Well, I was talking to someone about this recently and my response was that what makes sense to us doesn’t matter; and what seems reasonable to us doesn’t matter, because we’re sinners whose thinking is often foolish. No, what matters most is what God has revealed to us. And God, in his word, has revealed to us that he chooses his people. In the book of Romans, Paul reminds us of the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau and how God chose Jacob and not his brother Esau. And he chose Jacob before the brothers were born and before they had done anything good or bad. It doesn’t depend — Paul went on to say — on man’s desire or effort, but on the mercy of God. And in the book of Ephesians, Paul tells us that God chose his people before the creation of the world.
And so, here’s Paul, writing to this model church in Thessalonica, and he tells them that they were chosen by God. If it were not for the Lord and his electing love — by which he sets his love on his people and choses them to belong to him — then this model church would not exist.
But how could Paul tell that they were chosen? Well, he goes on to explain in verse 5 that it was because his preaching among them was effective. When he went to the city and preached in the synagogue, the Lord enabled him to preach among them in a powerfully way. And he goes on to explain what he means by preaching powerfully. It means he preached with the help of the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. In other words, the Holy Spirit was the source of his powerful preaching. The Holy Spirit came and helped him to preach the gospel message with great power. So, just as a light bulb bursts into light whenever it’s plugged in to the power source and switched on, so Paul’s preaching burst forth with light and power because the Holy Spirit was supplying him with the power he needed. And he also preached with deep conviction. Well, Paul could be referring to the way the people in the synagogue were convicted and converted to faith in Christ. But it’s more likely he’s referring to the confidence and boldness which the Lord gave to him whenever he preached the gospel among the people in that city.
I was listening to another preacher who was preaching on this passage and I was pleased to hear him say something which matches my own experience, because he described how faithful preachers always believe the message they preach. We don’t doubt God’s word, but believe it. We always do, if we’re faithful. However, there are occasions when we preach when something mysterious happens; and we’re given this unusual sense of confidence and boldness; and we can feel that the power of God is at work through the preaching of his word. And this power does not come from the preacher; but it comes from outside the preacher; it comes from God the Holy Spirit who is pleased to use the preaching of his word to call those whom he has chosen and to build them up in faith and love.
And so, when Paul went to Thessalonica, God the Holy Spirit helped him to preach with deep conviction and with this great sense of confidence and boldness. And sure enough, when he preached like that in Thessalonica, there were those who believed and who were converted to faith in Christ. And so, this model church came into existence because among all the people in Thessalonica, there were some whom God had chosen to belong to him; and since God had chosen them, he enabled Paul to preach to them with power.
Well, there’s something for us to pray for. We ought to pray that the Lord will enable preachers to preach powerfully Sunday by Sunday in churches throughout this city and throughout the world. We ought to pray that the Lord will give his preachers the help of the Holy Spirit; and that he will help them to preach with deep conviction and with this great and mysterious sense of confidence and boldness; and that it will spill over to the congregation, so that they too will feel the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit, so that it seems to them as if they’re hearing, not the words of a man, but the very word of God. Will you pray for that? That’s what we need. Churches are often tempted to rely on other things — earthly things — to try to draw people in and to keep them in. But when preachers are able to preach like this, then churches are transformed and the lives of sinners are transformed by the heavenly influence of the Holy Spirit.
Verses 6 and 7
Well, let’s move on to the next thing which we find in verses 6 and 7. And really, this is the main reason why the church in Thessalonica became a model for other churches. What is it? Well, Paul tells us:
in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
So, the main reason why the church in Thessalonica became a model for other churches was because in spite of severe suffering, they welcomed the message of the gospel with joy.
Do you remember the Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed? There was the seed that was sown on the rocky ground which sprang up quickly, but then withered and died in the sun. And the Lord explained that that stands for those who hear the word of God and — at once — they receive it with joy. However, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Well, the believers in Thessalonica were not like that, because they received the word with joy in spite of severe suffering. The suffering they faced because of the word — when those unbelieving Jews in Thessalonica turned on them and formed a mob and caused a riot in the city and brought them before the officials and falsely accused them; and who knows what other problems they caused for the believers — the suffering they faced because of the word did not cause them to give up the faith, but they continued to rejoice.
How were they able to rejoice in spite of severe suffering? Well, Paul explains that this joy was given to them by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enabled them to rejoice in the gospel in spite of what they were suffering. And that means that we too can look to God the Holy Spirit to enable us to rejoice in spite of severe suffering.
We’ve been learning from the book of Daniel that there are many who will oppose the Lord and his church and his gospel in these, the last days in which we live. Paul will tell the Thessalonians in his second letter to them that the mystery of lawlessness is already at work in the world, to try to destroy the church by opposing and deceiving the Lord’s people. The Devil will come at us with his wicked schemes to try to get us to stumble and fall away from Christ. And as well as the opposition from the Devil and from those who oppose Christ, we know as well that there are all kinds of trials and hardships for us to face in this troubled life. We know that — so long as we live in this fallen world — we will experience all kinds of sorrow and pain and suffering.
But we can look to God the Holy Spirit to enable us to rejoice in spite of our severe suffering. He enabled the Thessalonians to rejoice when they were persecuted for the faith. He enabled Paul and Silas to sing hymns at midnight when they lay bruised and battered in a prison cell in Philippi. And he can enable you to rejoice despite whatever trials and troubles you must face. And by helping you to rejoice in spite of severe suffering, he’s able to make you a model for other believers so that they will be helped and encouraged by your example of joy in the midst of suffering.
Verses 8 to 10
Well, the fourth thing Paul tells us about this model church is that the Lord’s message rang out from this church so that their faith in God became known everywhere.
Well, Paul does not tell us how the Lord’s message rang out from this model church. We do know that some believers from Thessalonica joined Paul and because his co-workers. In Acts 20, for instance, we read that Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica accompanied him. We know too that Aristarchus went with him as far as to Rome. Paul also mentions Jason in his letter to the Romans. Presumably they helped him to proclaim the good news. But since Thessalonica was an important city and many main roads and trade routes passed through the city, then no doubt many travellers who arrived in the city heard about this church that had been established and heard the message they believed.
The point is that they did not keep the word to themselves. Because of this church, others came to hear the word of the Lord and the content of the gospel. And the message they heard was that everyone must turn from idols which are dead and cannot do anything; and everyone must turn to God and so serve the living and true God. In other words, everyone must repent. And everyone who turns to the true God must look forward with hope to the coming of God’s Son who died, but who was raised, and who is able to save sinners from the coming wrath. In other words, everyone must believe in the Saviour who died and was raised. The message they proclaimed was that sinners must repent and believe. And churches today need to make sure that this is what we do. Instead of being distracted by all kinds of other things, churches today must ensure that we do not get distracted from the work of proclaiming the message that sinners must repent and believe in Christ the Saviour.
So, here’s this model church, known for their work produced by faith, their labour prompted by love, their endurance inspired by hope. Here’s this model church which began because of the electing love of God and because of the preaching of the word of God. Here’s this model church whose members rejoiced in spite of severe suffering. Here’s this model church from whom the message of the Lord rang out. Well, in closing notice that Paul gave thanks to God for this model church. And the reason he gave thanks to God for them is because the Lord was the one who made them like this. And that means, we should turn to the same God in prayer and ask him to make us like this more and more; and to produce more and more churches like this throughout the world; and all to the praise of glorious grace. And so, will you do that?