The Encouragement of a Faithful Church
Passage: 1 Thessalonians 1:1–1:10
The Encouragement of a Faithful Church
The church at Thessalonica was quite the faithful church. As we will see in the text this morning, there is much about these believers for us to imitate. And you can sense this even in the way that Paul addresses them. There are only two churches Paul writes to in the New Testament and doesn’t assert his authority as an apostle, the church at Philippi and the church at Thessalonica. And the reason he doesn’t with the Thessalonians is that he’s writing them with a gentle and encouraging tone. By and large, this church is doing what they needed to be doing, unlike where he was writing from, over in Corinth. On his second missionary journey, Paul had preached the gospel in Thessalonica, and several people had repented and believed, but this caused an uproar in the city. So, the believers there got Paul out safely as quickly as they could. But Timothy went back, and it was sometime later that Timothy met up with Paul and gave him a glowing report about what God was doing in the Thessalonian church. Therefore, Paul can write to them in light of what Timothy has shared about them.
Now as we begin to hear Paul commend this church for the things he’s heard of them, it’s a good time for us to stop and remember just what a church is. The New Testament term church means a “called out- gathering of people.” It refers to the people God has called to belong to him and who gather to worship him. But what’s important to note as we dive into this text is that, as Paul commends this “church,” he’s commending the members of the church who are being faithful. It seems that the majority in this church are showing evidence of conversion, so he commends the church as a whole. But individuals should be careful not to ever buy into the false notion that their association with a faithful congregation actually changes how they should understand their own spiritual state. Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica, but he intends to praise what is true of them as individual believers there.
We see in 1 Thessalonians chapter 1 that, as Paul and his gospel co-laborers prayed for the those in the church at Thessalonica, they were moved to give thanks to God for what they knew to be true about them. Specifically, they were moved to give thanks for the evidence of true conversion among them. And in the passage, we find that these marks are none other than that well-known New Testament triad of Faith, Love, and Hope. You can see it there in verses 2-3, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, 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.” What the apostle and his colleagues are grateful for is what springs forth from each of these virtues, namely, faith, love, and hope. These expressions of otherwise unobservable traits help to validate the Thessalonian’s conversion. That’s what he says in verse 4, look there with me. He says, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because…” and he goes on to explain how these characteristics have been observed in them. So Paul becomes thankful to see these things in this congregation. And we should do the same this morning. As Paul unpacks the marks of true conversion he sees in this church, it should prompt us to be both thoughtful and thankful. We should all give thought to how we see these marks in our own lives. And where we do see them both in ourselves and in our corporate body, it should give way to much thanksgiving and praise!
That said, what we first need to observe here from Paul and his partners, is who they are thankful to. In reading the text, we see that, upon Paul’s reflection of the good things he hears of the congregation, his thanksgiving in prayer is directed toward God. He says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.” So what Paul is celebrating about this congregation, he is giving glory to God for. He’s not saying, “Wow Thessalonians! Good job! Way to go! Keep it up!” He is certainly encouraging them to continue in faithfulness, but that’s not primarily what’s happening here. Primarily Paul says he’s getting on his face in prayer and saying, “Oh thank you God for these Thessalonians and for what we see in them!” Now, why would the apostle do that? Why give credit to God rather than praising this congregation? There’s only one explanation. Paul knew where credit was due. It was not due to the Thessalonian believers for the spiritual life and maturity they possessed. It was due to God and him alone! If this passage teaches us anything, it teaches us that spiritual life and the fruit that this life bears are NOT generated by the believer themselves. Salvation and growth in the spiritual life are both gifts of God for which he and He alone deserves the glory, honor, and praise.
So having it fixed in our minds just where the praise should go, what evidence of genuine faith has led Paul to give such praise to God?
First Evidence of Conversion: Faith
The first thing Paul is thankful to hear of this church is their work of faith. This is the first thing he mentions “remembering before God” in prayer. Now, one thing that warrants some clarification at this point is what Paul means when he says he is thankful for their “work of faith” in v. 2. What he does not mean is that he is “thankful for the work that is faith.” Nowhere in the New Testament do we get the idea that faith is a work produced by the will of man. Just the opposite is true, we read in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is no help at all.” What Paul means here is that he is thankful for their “work produced by their faith.” So what observable work was there among the Thessalonians that evidenced their faith?
There are two that the apostle mentions concerning the working of their faith, but the first is their initial reception of the gospel message. Verse 4-5 he says, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” So, Paul is grateful to God that when the gospel came to Thessalonica, the Holy Spirit worked powerfully to make them believe it. It would do us well to pay close attention here to the way in which the apostle describes the Spirit working powerfully among them.
First, Paul says the gospel came to them, “not only in word.” But it is crucial that we understand what Paul is and is not communicating here. He is not saying that the gospel message, with all of its propositional truths, was not spoken to the Thessalonians. Quite the opposite is true when we look to Acts 17 and hear Luke’s account of how the gospel first came to this place. Here’s what Luke says in Acts 17, “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” Now I could get on a rant here, but suffice it to say that, Paul is not advocating for the idea that the right presentation of the gospel is anything less than the right words. The gospel is certainly more than words, but it’s not less than. So, it came in word, but not only in word. How else, then, did it come?
It came, we read, “also in power and in the Holy Spirit.” And I mention these two together because they belong together. The apostle is not saying that the gospel “came with some display of power” and then it also came “in the Holy Spirit.” No, as the great exegete John Calvin says here, “it is as if the apostle had said- in the power of the Holy Spirit.” We know that the power of God proceeds from the Holy Spirit, so whenever the power of God is on display, rest assured that it is the work of the Holy Spirit. But this begs the question, what powerful display of the Spirit gave Paul such confidence in their conversion?
The answer lies in the last way Paul says the gospel came to the Thessalonians. He says it came, “with full conviction.” In other words, when the gospel came to them, they were fully convinced of its truth! They believed! They believed: they were sinners, who needed peace to be made between them and God, and that Jesus Christ, being the Son of God, lived, died, and was raised from the dead to accomplish that peace- for them. It’s their belief in that reality that is the power of the Spirit that worked among them. We always have to remember this church: the Spirit of God works through the Word of God to produce the Power of God! And that’s what Paul says happened among them in their coming to faith.
This was the first work of faith that gave Paul such gladness about their spiritual state: their initial reception of the gospel.
The second working of faith Paul knew of them was their ongoing progression in the faith. So you have initial reception and ongoing progression. Interestingly, the next thing Paul mentions in the text is the character that he and his missionary partners proved to have when with the Thessalonians. He says, “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” But he doesn’t mention this to actually point to himself or his co-laborers. He mentions this to talk about the working of faith seen in this congregation. He says, “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 the joy of the Holy Spirit.” So, not only was there an initial belief in the gospel, but their faith was at work in them producing a continual pursuit of holiness- of Christ-likeness. Paul says they, “received the word in much affliction,” literally they “welcomed the word of God in much affliction.” These Christians at Thessalonica were under a great deal of persecution. It’s why Paul left the city. But in the middle of that pressure culturally, legally, and otherwise to renounce their faith in the Word of God, what’s noted about the Thessalonians is that, all the more, they received the Word with gladness. They welcomed the Word to do all of its works in them. 2 Tim. 3:16 gives us just a piece of the picture as to what the word does in the believer. It teaches us, reproves us, corrects us, trains us, and equips us. And in the midst of opposition, the Thessalonians were just steady in joyfully receiving whatever the Word of God would do among them. And in that, Paul says they became like the Lord Jesus. And this gave him much joy because that’s the goal of the Christian life. That’s what’s outlined in Rom. 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Therefore, growing in likeness to Christ is evidence of true belief.
So much did the Thessalonians give themselves to the word of God that Paul says they became an “example” to other believers. As Paul went traveling about, he didn’t even have to tell people about the work God had done by His Spirit through the gospel in Thessalonica, because they were embracing the teachings of Scripture so well (pursuing holiness, evangelizing, repenting of sins) that news just got out about the believers there.
So Paul was thankful to God and confident of the Thessalonian’s election because of the work that faith was doing in them. Specifically, because of their initial reception of the gospel and their ongoing progression in the faith. So we should give thought to how we see these things in ourselves. And where there is evidence of belief in the gospel message and a growing conformity to Christ, praise God! That’s proof of his Spirit working powerfully among us.
Second Evidence of Conversion: Labor of Love
The second thing that made Paul so thankful to hear about this church was their labor of love. This is the next thing he mentions broadly in v. 3, and it’s the next thing he unpacks a bit in v. 9. Now, he mentions a couple of things in v. 9 about what the Thessalonian’s are doing (their repentance from idolatry AND their service to God). But since he’s already talked about how they’ve given themselves to the word, and thus become examples in Christ-likeness to others, we are going to lean into the second part of what he says here, in order to track with his initial commendation of them in their labor of love.
Notice here that he says they turned from idolatry to something else. V. 9 says, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, AND how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Just as an aside, that is the biblical idea of repentance. To turn AWAY from one thing TO another. Not just away from what’s bad. But turning toward godliness. So what did they turn to? Instead of devoting themselves to idols, they devoted themselves to one another in a labor of love. “But wait,” one may say, “that isn’t what the text says. The text says they turned to serve God, not others.” And you would be right in your observation of the text. However, we must remember that in the New Testament the idea of service to God is inextricably linked to the service of others. I mean think for a moment with me, just how would one go about serving God directly? Personal or corporate prayer? No, that would typically be considered either worship and adoration, or perhaps supplication (asking God to do things for you). What about time spent studying the word? While that might be considered worship, as you are seeking to know God and his will better, it’s not really a service to Him in any way. No, the only way we can render some sort of service to God, this side of Heaven, is to allow our love for him to find it’s expression in laboring for those He loves around us. And the greater the labor, the clearer it becomes that this is a service to God. That’s precisely what Paul is getting at here when he refers to the Thessalonian’s Labor of Love. The term labor here means, hard work or painful exertion.
And remember why Paul is so happy to hear of this church laboring in love for one another. This gives him confidence that, according to verse 4, “God has chosen” them. Paul says, “I’m excited to know of your service to God, in your labor of love for one another, because it shows you really belong to Christ.” And isn’t this perfectly consistent with what the Lord Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
There is evidence in our church of this labor of love. I see meals provided for families in hard seasons. I see hospital visits to the sick and people helping others moving from one place to another. I see serious commitment to pray for one another and babysitting for couples who need date-night. You should know, if you are a part of these things, these are not insignificant. Be encouraged! Your loving labor for your brothers and sisters is evidence of the Lord’s work of regeneration in your life.
But thankfulness can only come after thoughtfulness. So consider for yourself, as an individual, when’s the last time you didn’t feel like doing something for someone in this room, but you did it anyway? When is the last time, you knew of a need, inconveniencing as it was, but you decided they were worth it? And if you are saying, “Well I don’t know of any needs that beg to be met,” I bet if you email one of our elders, they could send you back a bullet-pointed list. Or better yet, when you are with your brothers and sisters on Sunday morning, Wednesday prayer, or just hanging out, maybe try listening to a little harder for how you can be of service to them. Because the truth is, if you can’t remember the last time your love for the Lord and His people compelled you to do some hard work for them, that’s a good reason for you to pause and consider your spiritual condition.
Paul lists here one more evidence of true conversion that he has heard of among the Thessalonians, which causes him to give thanks to God.
Third Evidence of Conversion: Steadfastness of Hope
The last thing Paul gives thanks to God for is their steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. He says it was told of them that they, “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” So again they are turning from their active idolatry to actively “waiting for” the second coming of Christ. Now “waiting” is not something that we typically think about being actively engaged in. However, the heading that Paul gives to this particular activity up in v. 3 can shed some light on this. When he says, he’s heard of their “steadfastness of hope,” the term steadfastness means patient endurance. We need to remember that the Thessalonians were under a great deal of persecution. One commentator says that religion had both political and economic ties. For this reason, the conversion of the Thessalonians had social and political implications and was not simply a personal matter. Most likely, their abandonment of idols was the cause of the social tension between the Christians and their contemporaries. Therefore, when Paul remarks about their steadfastness of hope, he is saying that they are patiently enduring all of the cultural consequences that come from being a faithful Christian. And they are doing so in light of their sure and certain hope in the return of Christ. This hope is what enables them to face all the persecution that comes their way. It’s what enables them to endure the lack of ability to make more money, the inevitable insults they receive, and the loss a voice in the legal system of their society. All these things they endure not purposelessly, not just because they don’t know what else to do. They faithfully persist in these things because they know what their endurance will result in- seeing the Lord Jesus come and take his faithful ones to himself. What Paul sees among the Thessalonians is the direct instruction Peter gives in 1 Peter 1, “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
And if not witnesses of the second coming, the Thessalonians nonetheless endure in light of the hope of being united with Christ at death. Either way, they have a confident assurance that the Son of God is not dead, but alive, and that this has grand implications for both those who are faithful to him and unfaithful to him in this life. That’s why Paul mentions that this is, “Jesus - who delivers us from the wrath to come.” They endure because they believe that God has loved them so much that he sent his son to endure the wrath that should have been theirs and, they endure, because there is a wrath coming for those who do not submit to the Son.
So again, as I invite you to give thought to how much you as an individual are fixing your hope on the sure and certain return of Christ, allow me to share a bit of encouragement from my interactions at Midtown. I cannot tell you how many times I have been both encouraged and convicted by seeing this hope (this steadfast hope in the Last Day) actively on display in the lives of people in this room. I was just talking with a brother last week, and he was sharing with me about some things going on in their family financially, and after he explained the situation here’s what he said, “It’s just another reminder that our hope’s not in money and we can’t idolize it.” And I left that conversation challenged to evaluate how much my hope is in money, or in Christ.
So I am so grateful to be surrounded by you all, who continually push me to ask these questions of myself. And I see in our body so much cause for praise to God for the evidence of spiritual life in this congregation. By God’s grace, may these marks of Faith, Love, and Hope be ever increasing in our body, so that we become an exemplary church like the Thessalonians.