Teaching series from 1 Thessalonians

Profile of a Healthy Church

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

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Introduction

We begin a study of Paul's first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica (read 1:1). Before we plunge into the contents of this letter, let's survey its background and setting.

Thessalonica was a major city in northern Greece. Situated on the main east-west highway (“Via Ignatia”) of the Roman Empire, it was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and very loyal to Rome. It survives to this day, now known as Salonika.

Paul planted this church on his second missionary journey about 50 A.D. Luke, one of Paul's mission band, concisely records what happened in Acts 17:1-9 (distill).

So Paul was in Thessalonica only 3-5 weeks before he was wrongly banned from the city. Concerned for their spiritual welfare, he sent Timothy back to check on them. Upon hearing Timothy's report, he writes this letter from Corinth to encourage, instruct and equip them in their relationships with Christ.

This means that 1 Thessalonians is one of the earliest documents of the New Testament—preceded only by Galatians and James. It is also one of the most personal . . .

Read 1:2-10.
Paul almost always begins his letters by telling his recipients that he thanks God for them. But these folks are special. Of all of his letters, he says more about why he thanks God for them than any other church. He even goes so far as to call them a model church (read 1:7-8b).

This doesn't mean that they were perfect, as we will see--they have their share of problems and lots of room for improvement in both knowledge and practice. 1:8b is hyperbole—he does have much to say to them, as we'll see! It means that they were a model of spiritual vitality—they fit Paul's profile of a healthy church. They have the right ethos, attitudes, and priorities. This is important if you are already in a church or looking for one . . .

What is this profile? Not attendance numbers, annual budget, media coverage, or slick marketing techniques. Paul summarizes his profile in 1:3 (read)—a church characterized by faith, hope, and love. These three terms have been trivialized into generic, pious platitudes through wedding sermons and Hallmark sympathy cards. But, properly understood, they describe a radical, revolutionary movement of God's Spirit in and through his people. In 1:4-10, Paul supplies some content for each of these terms so we can know if we have them and how to get them if we don't.

Work of Faith

The NIV interprets this phrase (“the work produced by your faith”); the NASB translates it literally from the Greek (“your work of faith”). The “work of faith” refers not to the works that resulted from their faith, but to their decision to believe in Jesus.

This language echoes Jesus' invitation in John 6:27-29. Because he had miraculously fed these people the day before, they want another free lunch. But Jesus refuses, and instead challenges them to pursue “bread” (spiritual life) that will last forever. When they ask him how they may get this “bread,” he says 6:29 (see also 6:35).
So it is not a “work” in the sense of a deed you perform to earn spiritual life—it is given to us as a free gift (as Jesus emphasizes in 6:27) because he paid for it through his death on the cross. It is a "work" in the sense of being a significant decision that you make to personally receive this spiritual life (contra PASSIVE UNIVERSALISM).

This is the first mark of a healthy church—that it is made up of people who are converted. They know what they have been converted from (1:9 - “. . . how you turned to God from idols . . . ”), and they know what they have been converted to (1:9 - “. . . to serve a living and true God . . . ”).

The church I grew up in was not this way. They loved to call themselves a “community of faith”—but there was no clarity at all on what that faith was. It was kind of a spiritual smorgasbord. Some people were basically atheists, others were deists, others were into pantheistic spirituality. It was more like a country club than what Paul calls a church. It didn't really matter what you believed—you just attended events and socialized. Ironically, the few people who were clear on who Jesus was and the work of faith were branded “fundamentalists” and shunned.

ADDITIONAL, POSITIVE STATEMENT
The cool thing is that God gets personally involved in helping us come to faith in Christ. You make the decision, but he provides you with the personalized evidence you need to make an informed decision. By consulting this passage and the account of Paul's initial visit in Acts 17, we learn of three ways God does this.

He pointed to objective evidence, including Jesus' fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophecy (Acts 17:2-3)—an absolutely unique phenomenon. I challenge you to investigate this (and other) line of evidence by reading Christianity: The Faith That Makes Sense.

They saw the evidence of Jesus' power to change lives because of the loving lifestyle of Paul and his friends (1:5b; 2:1-12). Maybe God has brought his people into your life so you can see a living demonstration of his reality.

As they took in these two lines of evidence, God's Spirit brought them to “full conviction.” This is “the ring of truth”—his personal, existential persuasion that Jesus is the truth, that you are lost without him, and that you need to receive him (1:5a—ME IN 1970). Maybe you are experiencing this right now. If you are, it's time to make a commitment . . .

This is the “work of faith.” Have you taken this step? I guarantee you that you will never regret it. As the years go by, it will only loom larger and larger as the best decision you have ever made. One of the reasons for this is that Christ will lead you into something else—the “steadfastness of hope” . . .

Steadfastness of Hope

Steadfastness means endurance—literally to “hang in there.” Here is the second element of a healthy church—it is made up of people who exhibit spiritual buoyancy: the power to keep your head above water in the midst of life's storms so you can keep doing what God wants you to do.

Of course, steadfastness implies pressure, adversity, and opposition. Contrary to what the “healer-dealers” tell you (“You are children of the King, so you should live like royalty”), God does not exempt you from suffering (circumstantially or emotionally) when you receive Christ. You will be subject to the same accidents, sicknesses, etc. that everyone else is. In addition, your faith in Christ will bring extra adversity your way—flak from family and friends, spiritual opposition from God's adversary, and (potentially) persecution.

This is what the Thessalonians experienced. They saw Paul get run out of town, they got slandered as insurrectionists. Some of them have already died (4:13).

Yet they remained steadfastly hopeful. Not because they were macho, stoic people, but because in the midst of their weaknesses, God's Spirit infused them with hope and peace and even joy in the midst of their suffering (1:6—GOON AS “ROCK OF GIBRALTAR”). God will do the same for us. The secret is our mental focus.

Read 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. In spite of their many sufferings, Paul and his companions did not lose heart. Instead, they experienced a daily renewal of hope. Notice the key in 4:18—“while we look . . . “Look” is literally skopew, from which we get "scope." God infuses this hope into our hearts as we choose to focus, not on our difficult circumstances (“the [temporal] things that are seen”), but on God's character and promises (“the [eternal] things that are not seen”) as revealed in his Word. Among these promises are:

The same God who raised Jesus from the dead and took him to heaven will do the same for me (see 1:10). No matter how much human wrath we may incur, we will never face God's wrath. The worst that people can do to me is take my life—and then I go to be with the Lord forever. This cuts my suffering down to size (Romans 8:18).

The same God who was at work through Jesus' tragic death to bring good to the world is at work in everything (including the bad things) for good in my life. Because he is sovereign and loving, no one and nothing can prevent him from doing this (Romans 8:28).

Not experiencing this? What are you focusing on—the storms or the promises? By the way, this is one of the great benefits of Christian community—brothers and sisters who can teach you and remind you of this focus . . .

Labor of Love

This brings us to their “labor of love.” When you have put your faith in Christ, and when you experience his Spirit giving you hope, it doesn't make you passive and selfish (as say). Rather, it motivates you to actively give his love away to other people who desperately need it. (“I am completely taken care of and provided for by the Lord—Now I can take my eyes off of myself and serve others.”)

A lot of this “labor of love” is directed to other Christians (FUTURE TEACHINGS IN THIS SERIES), but the labor of love from the Thessalonians that caught Paul's eye was that they were telling other people about Christ (read 1:8-9).

They saw that God had given them an opportunity to share Christ not only with their friends and family members, but also with the many people who came through Thessalonica to other parts of the empire. So word filtered back to Paul in Corinth from Christians who saw them doing this, and from others who met Christ through their witness. This was not a slick marketing campaign designed to get people to buy a product—it was a grass-roots, spontaneous movement motivated by gratitude to God and love for people.

This is the third element of a healthy church—it is made up of people who actively share their faith with others. What could be more natural than this? When you put your faith in Christ to reconcile you to God, and when he assures you of his love by granting you hope through his Holy Spirit, the natural response is to want to tell others about what Christ has given to you so they can have it too. This is not intolerance or arrogance—it is “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

Isn't it cool that you can love other people in the most significant way of all from the moment that you come to Christ? If you are a new Christian, don't give into the lie that you can't be effective in sharing your faith until you've had years of learning and life-change! You have the fresh experience of new life, you have the relational connections, you manifest the most obvious change, etc. Your testimony of how Christ has changed your life is powerful!! Take advantage of the unique opportunities God is giving you, and experience the joy and excitement of God affirming and using you as you do so! (BAPTISM VIDEO??)

Our church has always had this reputation—and I hope we never lose it!

Conclusion

The only thing better than having this for yourself is being used by God to impart it to and nurture it in others.

Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt