How you turned to God
1 Thessalonians 1, Acts 17:1-9
Sunday 11th August 2019
This morning we commence a series on 1 Thessalonians. But I preached on the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians last year on the occasion of our Church Anniversary, and I don’t want to preach substantially the same sermon this morning. Last year I focused on 1 Thessalonians 1:3 as a model of what we should desire to be like as a church. Read 1 Thessalonians 1:3.
“We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Thessalonians 1:3 NIVUK
Today I want to use this verse as a starting point, and ask how the church of Thessalonica came to be a church marked by active faith, love and hope. I intend to answer this question by looking both at the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians and at Luke’s record in Acts 17 of how this church began.
Where the Answer Must Begin
Look at what Paul says immediately after he has declared that the Thessalonian church is marked by faith, love and hope. Read 1 Thessalonians 1:4.
“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you,”
1 Thessalonians 1:4 NIVUK
Paul knows that the starting point for the development of the Thessalonian church as a church of faith and love and hope is not himself or them, but God. It is God who took the initiative, choosing them in love. If we turn now to Luke’s record in Acts we can see something of how God took the initiative. Here is how the passage concerning the beginning of the church in Thessalonica begins – read Acts 17:1a.
“When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue.”
Acts 17:1 NIVUK
At first glance this doesn’t look very enlightening. But it is if we go back behind the arrival of Luke and his companions in Thessalonica. We need to go back to Acts 16:9-10 – read.
“During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
Acts 16:9-10 NIVUK
Paul didn’t come to the city of Thessalonica in the province of Macedonia (located today in northern Greece) because he had worked out that this was where he ought to go. Nor did he come because a group of people in that city had worked out that they should send for Paul. Paul and his companions came because God had called them.
Part Two of the Answer
God called Paul and his companions to go to Macedonia, and to travel through Macedonia to Thessalonica, but God didn’t call them merely to be travellers. They were travellers with a message. Read 1 Thessalonians 1:5a.
“because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.”
1 Thessalonians 1:5 NIVUK
We see more of what it meant for Paul and his companions to travel with the gospel message if we go back to Acts 17 – read Acts 17:2-3.
“As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said.”
Acts 17:2-3 NIVUK
They went to the synagogue as the most strategic place to begin, to begin with Jews, and with Gentiles who attended the synagogue in order to hear about the God of the Old Testament, the one true God. There Paul and his companions proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfilment of Old Testament hope. And there they proclaimed Jesus’ death and resurrection. They had come to Thessalonica because God had called them, and they did what God had called them to do – they proclaimed God’s message of salvation.
Part Three of the Answer
That was how the gospel came to be proclaimed in Thessalonica, but more was needed if people were to benefit from this proclamation. Read 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6.
“because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.”
1 Thessalonians 1:5-6 NIVUK
The gospel certainly needed to be proclaimed accurately in words, but it also needed to be proclaimed with power and conviction by people whose lives were consistent with their proclamation. And the gospel message also needed to be received, to be welcomed with joy by those who heard it. Neither the powerful proclamation nor the joyful reception was a purely human action – it was the Holy Spirit who made both possible. Paul here describes with theological insight what was happening when the Thessalonians heard and believed the gospel, whereas Luke describes what any careful observer could have seen – read Acts 17:4.
“Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.”
Acts 17:4 NIVUK
The evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit was that people were persuaded of the truth of the gospel, and continued to listen to Paul and Silas in order to understand the gospel more fully.
The Final Part of the Answer
If we turn back to Paul’s account in 1 Thessalonians we see that the response of the Thessalonian hearers went beyond merely saying in words that they accepted the gospel. Their response was evident in transformed lives. Read 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8.
“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it,”
1 Thessalonians 1:6-8 NIVUK
Their faith was clearly genuine, going far beyond mere words of agreement. They imitated the lives of those who had shared the gospel with them, and the life of Jesus himself. They were not deterred by persecution or other suffering, but went on in faithful discipleship. Those who had come out of paganism put idol worship behind them and served the living and true God. And all of them lived lives of hope as well as faith, looking forward to the return of the risen Jesus Christ. Paul is here clearly writing about more than his initial time in Thessalonica. This is particularly evident in what he says about those who have come out of idol worship, since Paul’s first hearers were all people who attended the synagogue. Luke, however, is simply recording that initial period, but he does give us a vivid account of the kind of persecution faced by the Thessalonian Christians from the very beginning – read Acts 17:5-9.
“But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they put Jason and the others on bail and let them go.”
Acts 17:5-9 NIVUK
Between them, Paul and Luke have left us with a powerful and instructive account of the early days of the church in Thessalonica. But how does their account instruct and empower us today?
Thessalonica and Eastwood
The primary role played by God is as true for us as it was for the Thessalonians. When we seek to reach out to those who have not yet come to faith in Christ, we need to remember this. This will keep us from congratulating ourselves when people respond positively, and from blaming ourselves when people do not respond positively. When we look to the future as a church, we also need to remember that God is in charge. We need to trust God rather than to be afraid that we will fail. We need to emphasise prayer, asking God to enable us to find his way for our church together. Secondly, we need to imitate Paul’s commitment to the gospel. We need to hold fast to the gospel, and to the Bible as a whole, and we need to commit ourselves to playing a part in proclaiming that gospel, according to our gifts and opportunities.
There is probably no Billy Graham in this congregation, but God is willing and able to use all sorts of people in all sorts of ways to proclaim the gospel. And the Holy Spirit is as active and powerful now as in the time of the New Testament. One of the best ways in which we can proclaim the gospel is to live out our faith in front of others, particularly in front of those who have not yet come to faith in Christ.
We often hear of people who have been turned away from Christian faith by Christians who have behaved toward them in ways which do not reflect the character of Christ. But I think that sometimes we forget about the many people who have been drawn to Christian faith by spending time with someone whose faith has been acted out consistently with love and integrity.