Please have a seat, pick up a Bible and as we continue in our series 'Waiting for Jesus', please turn to 1 Thessalonians 2 so we can look at that together. Let's pray:
Father God - please speak to us and work in us as we read your word together now. By your spirit, help us to accept and receive these words as your word and deepen our conviction that your gospel is true. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
It's the real thing. It really is. This message about Jesus as Saviour and Lord is the real thing. As the reading we heard from John's gospel said (John 20.31):
"Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [in him] you may have life in his name."
That means every area of your life is affected. However many days or years you have left on this earth should be transformed because Jesus came from heaven, died on a cross to save us, rose from the dead and will one day come again. Jesus makes all the difference. Watch this short video:
This message about Jesus as Saviour and Lord is the real thing. It makes all the difference. The first readers of 1 Thessalonians needed to be sure of that. We do too. Look at 1 Thessalonians 1.9-10: We see they had
"turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son [that is Jesus] from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come".
They no longer worshipped man-made idols - false gods. Now they served the one, true living God. The only real God. How did that happen? Acts 17 tells us the story of how that church was planted by a powerful work of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of God's word. Paul and his team were there for just a few weeks. After just three weekends of reasoning with them from the scriptures in the synagogue that Jesus was the Christ, we read in Acts 17.4 that,
"…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."
Those young believers very quickly faced severe opposition from the Jews and the city authorities so Paul, Silas and Timothy had to flee the city in order to protect them. It must have been so hard to leave the infant Christians, who they loved so much, so soon, and especially to face such persecution for their faith. But, after a few months, when Timothy returned, he discovered that not only had they survived, they were thriving and strong in the faith. He took that news back to the others who responded by sending this letter.
So what might now stop them being sure that the God they now worshipped was real? For one thing the suffering they were facing might have unsettled them. But it also seems that some were trying to convince them that Paul was a fake - his motives were dodgy, he was a fraud and his message was made up. They might think he was their friend, but he didn't really love them. In that context, Paul wants them to know that what had happened to them was from God. They had not got it all wrong. The message about Jesus is true.
1. The Message about Jesus is True
So, in verses 1-12 of chapter 2, Paul speaks about himself and the friends who had come with him. He reminds them what his visit was like. 'You know' or 'you remember' are key phrases. He's not vain, or wanting to boast. He reminds them of his visit because he wants them to know that the message he brought them is true. Let's look at what he says. Verses 1-2:
"For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict."
Paul and his team were not in Thessalonica by accident, or as tourists - they were there because they wanted to bring the message about Jesus to them. Paul and his team didn't just bump into those who became Christians at Thessalonica. They had deliberately, intentionally gone out of their way to tell them about the good news of Jesus. And that had not made their life easy. Before he was with them, Paul had suffered in Philippi. And while he was with them he had suffered. How could he keep going, declaring the gospel of the living and true God? Because God had helped him to speak boldly despite much conflict. God was behind it all. It was his gospel. Verses 3-6:
"For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ."
His motive for preaching had not been driven by what he could get out of it - not money nor popularity. He had not been dishonest in his behaviour - no impurity, no deception, no flattery, no trickery. He did not try and use, abuse or manipulate anyone. What instead was his motive for bringing them the message about Jesus? First: Paul was convinced that the God of the Bible was 'the living and true God' and that the gods of the world's human religions were false. And what convinced him of that truth was the resurrection of Jesus – a real event in history which showed that God has made him rightful Lord and Judge over all. Second: Paul was convinced God himself had given them the job of telling others the gospel. And so he was the one Paul wanted to please and serve. God was the one who knew what was in his heart - it's as if he was standing in a court and God himself is there as a witness. Verses 7-12:
"But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, [in other words: we loved you so much] we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct towards you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory."
Did Paul and his gang really love the Thessalonians? Yes! They were not like a bored delivery man who drops off a parcel, grabs your signature and gets away as quick as he can! Paul loved and really did care about them. He would have loved to have stayed longer. The way they behaved completely matched the message they brought. They talked of a God who had given himself for them and Paul and company did just that - they gave themselves for the sake of the Thessalonians. They spoke to them of the gospel of free forgiveness - so they wanted to offer that message to them for free, which is why they worked hard to offer the free gospel free of charge. They talked of a God who was holy and pure - and their love was blameless and they encouraged, comforted and urged the young Thessalonian believers to live lives worthy of God.
Now, I've kept us going through those verses quite quickly so we don't miss his overall purpose - he's talking about his ministry team and their courage and integrity and love and hard work, but that's not his focus. His purpose is to reassure them that the message they heard through him was true. Jesus had appointed him as an apostle – with the task of preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus and with his authority. The message that had turned their lives upside down was the real deal. They did not need to worry. And nor do we. This message brought by the apostles about Jesus as Saviour and Lord has been written down for us in the New Testament. Our faith in Christ rests on their witness and teaching as well and these words give us confidence in the integrity of those who wrote the Bible. Which is just as well – because it is a message that changes the whole direction of your life!
2. True Messengers of Jesus
Now that we've got the main purpose Paul had in mind when he wrote those verses we can learn too from their example. These are incredible verses describing authentic Christian ministry and they are a wonderful model to copy for all Christians - not just church leaders and ministers. So here are a few questions that I think this passage asks us:
- Are we being deliberate and intentional in sharing the gospel? There are those around us who will not get to hear the good news if we do not, in the power of the Spirit, intentionally step into their lives in order to share the gospel with them. Will you follow Paul's example who in loving obedience to God crossed into other cultures to tell them the wonderful, life transforming news of Jesus and his death on the cross?
- Are we convinced the gospel is true for all? All around us are those who believe in a different truth or in no truth at all. And we will only be motivated to tell them the gospel if we're convinced that Jesus really lived, died and rose again and that those events can only be explained by his being the rightful Lord and Judge of all. Things that happen in history are true for everyone, whether they like it or not, whether they believe it or not. So on the morning we woke up to discover that we had voted to exit the European Union, I don't know what you thought. But whether or not you liked it, whether or not you thought, 'I can't believe it,' is irrelevant. It really happened and therefore the implications are true for everyone. Are we convinced the gospel is true for all?
- Do we have integrity as we present the gospel to those around us? There should be no dodgy methods or selfish motives.
- Do we want to please God more than we want to please people? When conversation turns to spiritual things we have two options: please God by saying what he wants said. Or please men by saying what they want to hear. Sometimes that means some hard conversations. They're hard because we want to please. We want to make the gospel acceptable. But the only way we can do that is to change it - to soften it, to leave out things we ought to say. We need to remember God has given us the job of delivering his gospel message – like a Prime Minister entrusting a message to an ambassador. If you're the ambassador, you're can't just say, 'I don't think I'll say all of this. They may not like it.' You have to say it – even though you know that if they don't like it, you're the one who they'll react to. That doesn't mean we need to say absolutely everything every time an opportunity comes up to speak about Jesus! But we do need to ask: Do I want to please God more than I want to please people?
- Do we both share the gospel and love people? Does our life back up our message? We're not only to tell people the gospel but to show the gospel in the way we treat them. We need to do both. We'll all gravitate one way or the other - perhaps some need to hear 'not only the gospel, but our lives as well' while others need 'not only our lives, but the gospel as well.' Do we both share the gospel and love people?
These verses are a model for us to follow. They show us what true messengers of Jesus look like. But verses 13-16 bring us back to the main idea of these verses - that the message about Jesus is true.
3. The Message about Jesus is True
God's word hadn't come to the Thessalonians through a voice speaking out of the sky. What had happened is that Paul and his friends had preached the gospel to them and they had recognised God speaking – calling them to repent and believe in Jesus. Look at 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."
How we treat the word of God has eternal significance. Will we treat them as the words of men - even good, wise men - or as the words of the true God - our maker and saviour. How we treat these words ends up being no different to how we treat the one whose words they are. The Thessalonians listened to the message delivered via Paul and Silas and Timothy, and received and accepted them as coming from the mouth of God.
Perhaps you recognise that experience yourself. You read words in the Bible, or you have the Bible explained and preached to you, and you know that God himself is speaking to you. Words written by men, yes. But also words from God himself. Paul thanked God for this experience, and so should we. It is a sign of God at work in us. God's word is what God uses as he works in us. God's Spirit uses God's word to protect us, challenge us and encourage us. God's word transforms our lives and our characters. But only as we read it, hear it taught, think about it, humbly submit to it in our lives – treating it not as the word of men, but as it really is, the word of God.
That's why we need to keep the words of this book close to us – read it on our own day by day, join midweek groups and commit to weekly services. We need to choose to do those things. It's so important to keep hearing and obeying God's word, so that God's Word can do God's work in our lives. And God was at work in the lives of the Thessalonians. All through this chapter, Paul has been reassuring these new Christians that their Christian experience was genuine and he does that again in these final few verses. He assures them that God is at work in them by the way they were willing to suffer for sharing the gospel. Verses 14-16:
"For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God's wrath has come upon them at last!"
For the Thessalonians, receiving and accepting God's word led to suffering. That almost certainly will also be true for us and all those who follow in their footsteps. These verses emphasise that suffering for being a Christian is normal. Opposition to the gospel, and especially opposition from those close to home, is what we should expect. The Thessalonians have been suffering, in this case at the hands of the Jews. He looks back over the past and shows how the suffering they were going through was not unique. The Old Testament Prophets, then Jesus, then the Judean church and now the Thessalonian church – all suffered persecution from their own people. This remains the experience of many Christians today. Often it is those closest to us who cause us most grief for being Christians – our family, friends, work colleagues – and that can be very, very painful.
Paul wanted them to know that what was happening to them was normal Christian experience. They should not be thrown off course by this suffering – in fact their willingness to suffer was evidence that they had received the word of men as the word of God. We too need to be willing to suffer for being a Christian and for sharing the gospel with those around us. I've been reading of the courage of Egyptian Christians and their response to the bombings and murders they've faced this Easter. In the face of such suffering it takes courage to proclaim the gospel. Courage that only God can give and courage that comes from knowing that the gospel is true.
These are not easy verses – they might seem harsh or appear that Paul is anti-Jewish. We need to remember Paul had a Jewish background himself and he wrote elsewhere of his longing for his own people to trust in Jesus - so it's not that he does not love Jewish people. He just knows that there are those whose aim was to stop the Christians talking about Jesus to those who didn't know him so that they can be saved. They did not want others doing what the Thessalonians had done: accepting the word of God and turning "to God from idols to serve the living and true God".
Paul knew that God had given him the task of taking the message of the gospel to the whole world – including those who were not Jewish – the Gentiles. That had made him unpopular with the Jews because they saw the gentiles as outsiders. But Paul knew that the message about Jesus was for everyone. He knew that the only way anyone can be saved is to trust and follow Jesus. So, he refused to give up on that task – and he wanted the Thessalonians to keep speaking to all those willing to listen without being scared of those who oppose the gospel.
He reminds us that Jesus is coming again – he sees everything and he is not pleased with those who oppose the gospel. One day they will face his judgement for what they have done. They may seem powerful now, but one day their power will be gone. So don't be scared of them – instead keep sharing your life and the gospel with all around you. And pray for courage to keep going and to keep speaking about Jesus, even when it brings suffering into your life.