Model believers - 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 18th February 2001.

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‘Pastor ,what can we do about our son?’ In a flood of tears the story came out. This was a couple who had worked hard and prayed hard to raise their children in the Christian faith. They loved God and so naturally they wanted their children to love him too. But their eldest son who had just gone to college, decided to throw in the everything he had been taught from childhood. He told his parents quite bluntly that he didn’t want anything to do with God anymore.

You don’t have to be in the ministry all that long before you come across a story like that. Why do so many young people abandon the faith of the youth? Well, a few years ago a team of sociologists in America decided to find out by polling hundreds of university students and they published their findings in the Review of Religious Research. And do you know what was the number one reason given for abandoning the Christian faith? 38% cited hypocrisy. They were put off by the behaviour of church members which contradicted their professed beliefs. And that may well be your problem, deep down you have an interest in finding out more about the Christianity, but to be frank you have been put off by the way some Christians have acted. Am I right?

But it has to be said that while many are switched off Christianity because of the behaviour of professing Christians, many are turned on because of what they see in Christian lives. So here are some words of a physics student: ‘When I started as a student, you were likely to find me on the footie pitch or in a pub on a Sunday, certainly not in church. While I didn't have a religious upbringing, I did on occasions wonder what it was all about... Coming to college was the first time I met committed Christians of my own age. To my surprise they were intelligent people who didn’t seem particularly gullible. So I was intrigued ..One thing struck me as I looked was the integrity of lifestyle displayed by Christians. They had better, more real friendships and better attitudes to other people. This is a generalisation, but I didn’t find the hypocrisy that the media are so keen to expose in the established church.’

You see it is all to do with modelling isn’t it? You have those who badly model the Christian faith. The result? -hypocrisy and a switching off. And you have those who model well what it means to be a Christian with the result that even some of Christianity’s most vociferous critics are often reduced to silent admiration.

But it is not simply individual Christians that need to model the new life which is to be found in Jesus Christ, whole Christian communities need to do it. This is the way the American writer Richard Neuhaus lays down the challenge : ‘ The church best serves the world when it is most distinctively and unapologetically the church... when the church dares to be different, it models for the world what God calls the world to become. The church models what it means to be a community of caring and a community of character.’ And just what it means to be a model church is what we are going to be looking at over the next few weeks as we turn to this wonderful letter of the apostle Paul to the Thessalonians. You see, this was a mimicking church as we see in v 6- ‘ You became imitators of us and of the Lord’. They looked to Paul and Silas as model Christians and copied them as Paul and Silas copied Jesus. And as a result they in turn became a model church for others to emulate- v7 ‘And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Archaia.’ Now that is one great compliment being paid isn’t it? For other Christians living miles away to say ‘We want to be like them, that is exactly how our church ought to be.’

Now when the word ‘church’ is mentioned to you what picture springs to mind? A building perhaps with gothic architecture, probably cold and unprepossessing. Maybe it is an institution like ‘the Church of England’? Or it could be a career move, we talk, don’t we, of people going ‘into the church.’ But look at how Paul describes these believers in v1. It literally reads: ‘To a church of Thessalonians.’ It is like us writing a letter addressed to a church of Yorkshiremen. There is nothing particularly religious about the word ‘church’- ekklesia . It is simply a way of saying ‘a group of Thessalonians’ as we might say ‘a group of Hull people.’ And just how this group was pulled together is described in Acts 17 vv-10. There we are told that apostle Paul and a few friends turned up in town and went straight to the synagogue in line with their usual strategy of targeting the Jews first. And arguing from the Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, they tried to persuade them that Jesus was God’s appointed and long awaited King who had to suffer and rise from the dead. And Luke informs us that some were persuaded. This was not just an emotional experience, they became convinced of the truth. In addition to some Jews, a good number of Greeks as well as a number of well to do women also became followers of this Christ. But then some of the synagogue Jews turned nasty and with rent -a -mob ran Paul and his friends out of town . So we are talking about a time period of no more than 3 to 4 weeks to gather a group of believers by preaching the gospel, then to do some follow up talks on Christian basics, and that was it- your model church was formed. Isn’t that astonishing? We don’t know how many there were, chances are it was no more than 50-60 people ,but there it is, this gathering which has become the model for the entire region. And so we might want to ask: what is so special about this group of Christians with very little by way of organisational structure- no special building, no organ, no Vicar, but which nonetheless propels Paul into rapturous praise to God? What is it about these people such that as we read in v 8 everyone is talking about them ? Well, there are four things which we need to take on board.

First of all, this is a supernatural community. Just take a look at the full description Paul gives of them in v1 ‘To the group of Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, grace and peace to you.’ Do you realise what that means? It means that by virtue of these people accepting Paul’s message that Jesus is the Lord of the Universe, they are drawn into the very presence of the God they never knew. They now inhabit a divine environment, if I may put it like that. As these people are gathered together by the Word of God, the Gospel, they are taken into the very heart of God, bathed in his glory, infused with his energy, hedged in by his love. They are ‘in’ God and the Lord Jesus . And they have discovered a most wonderful thing; they have found that God’s nature, is grace and peace. It is not that God gives grace, rather he is gracious, that is the type of God he is -he is a kind God, a generous God ,he is the God who loves to give and to give. This is the God who stoops down to lift us up like a Father would lift up his little child. This is the God who makes peace, having taken all the steps necessary to remove the enmity between himself and us caused by our snubbing him and wounding him, by being wounded for us on a cross. Now this God will never be against us. He will never condemn us-for peace has broken out with the result that heaven meets earth when God’s people meet in his name. Isn’t that an astonishing thought? Tonight my friends you are experiencing something supernatural. It may not be weird, but it is certainly something wonderful. We are in the presence of divine royalty.

Secondly, this is a persuaded community- v2-3 (read). As we have seen in Acts 17 when these people became Christians, they are not described as being converted, but as having been persuaded. That is, their minds were engaged as they listened very carefully to Paul’s arguments about who Jesus is and what he has done. So NT evangelism always involves the mind. But it doesn’t stop at the mind, it filters down to capture the whole person leading to a totally different way of thinking and behaving; a complete reordering of values and just what it is we are to live for. What we have here is the threefold experience of all of those who have become convinced of the divine humanity , sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus-they have faith, love and hope. Faith, directed upwards towards God, love directed outwards towards others, hope, reaching onwards into the future to Jesus.

You see, if Jesus died for me and is alive then I am invited to trust him. You can rely on someone like that can’t you? Do you honestly think that the God of the universe would go to such lengths to bring us into a personal relationship with himself and then will make a mistake and lose us somewhere along the way? Of course not. When he was on earth no one who put their trust in him was ever disappointed, no one. Whether it was a leper cut off from society. A prostitute spurned by the religious establishment. A broken hearted widow who just lost her only son. They could all come to Jesus and he was there for them. Do you think he won’t be for you? You can trust him. Faith.

But if Jesus is the King who was broken on a cross, with my sin holding him there, then I have been loved beyond all human comprehension, haven’t I? Jesus cannot love me any more or any less than he did when he first loved me and died for me. The same love which led him from heaven to occupy a cold, dark, grave is the same love which he pours out on me today. And so I will love him and be enabled by him to love others too. Love.

And if Jesus is the Christ risen from the dead who has promised to return in glory, then Christians of all people can be positive about the future. And what a future that is going to be, when the One who is goodness and beauty and holiness shall reign in which everything is caught up into his life giving personality. Hope you see.

And all of these things have an observable effect in the here and now, so Paul talks about their work produced by faith, their labour prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope. What is work? It is energy put out. What is labour? It is the tiredness felt as a result of work. What is endurance? It is continuing to work in spite of the tiredness. So let me ask you a question: what is your picture of the normal Christian life? How do you view the ideal church- a church worth belonging to? Well, here it is. It is a people so trusting in Jesus that they work hard for him. It is a people so full of love that they get tired out for him. It is a people so full of hope that they put up with all sorts of unpleasantness and inconvenience for him. So what sort of Christian are you? Are you a normal Christian? That is, are you working hard for him? So hard that at times you are just plain tired out, but you will go on anyway because you love him, you will cope with those upsets, you work at relationships with other Christians as well as put yourself out for non-Christians ,because you know that one day Jesus is going to return and this life is so short anyway, so lets make the most of it for him. Is that the sort of Christian you are? Is that the sort of group to which you belong? Because according to the Bible, that is the norm, not the exception-this is the sign of God at work.

In the third place this is a chosen community. We need to ask: how did this happen? Is it because these folk were smarter than others in Thessalonica? Is it because they had been let in to some inside spiritual track denied to others, so if only you have the special ministry of the anointed guru it can be yours. Well, no- v4 (read). Paul is not congratulating these people for their faith, he is thanking God for their faith, because he is the one who gives it. He has chosen them. We talk, don’t we of us making a decision for Christ. True. But here Paul speaks of Christ making a decision for us, which is much more remarkable.

Well, how can Paul be so sure? How can we be sure that we have been chosen by the kindness of God to know him and be loved by him? That is a very important question. In other words how do you know you are a Christian? Paul tells us, which is the meaning of that little word ‘because’ in v 5a, just look at it. (read).

You see, this is a transformed community, which is what the rest of the passage is all about- and did you notice that it all has something to do with a Word-the word of the Gospel? They received the word -vv 5-6, they proclaimed the word, vv 7-8 and they lived the word, v9.

These people became Christians, forming a new community of transformed people because first of all they received a word, a message- vv 5-6 (read). As Paul explained the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus is the Christ who died for rebels by suffering the judgement of rebels and was raised again as ruler deserving our allegiance and love, that message came to them as more than mere human words. They came with power, provided by God himself-the Holy Spirit ,with the result that those who heard it were convinced that as Paul spoke ,God was speaking through him. Paul is not saying that alongside his message some other thing happened which showed the Holy Spirit’s power. No, the message resulting in followers of Jesus is the sign that God’s power was at work. According to Genesis 1 ,God spoke his Word which went out with His Spirit just like my words are carried along on my breath, and the universe was brought into being. So the new miracle is that as the message of the Gospel is explained that too goes out with God’s Spirit to bring about a new creation- a church. Let me ask you: what is it do you think will bring your non-Christian friends at Uni, or at work or your family to faith in Jesus? A miracle or two, some enthusiastic singing? No, it will be the Christian message faithfully taught, applied by the Holy Spirit. Sure, changed lives are also part of that witness, that is why Paul says ‘you know how we behaved amongst you’. So it is no good saying one thing and doing something else which contradicts it-that is the switch off we talked about earlier. Let your behaviour back up your belief-walk the talk as they say. Tell, me, if all those who said they are Christians were taken from the Universities tomorrow. If the CU closed shop. Would anyone notice the difference? Really? Would the people living in this area really be taken aback if St. John’s moved site? Sure there might be one or two problems when it came to funerals and weddings. But would it be noticed? It is a real challenge isn’t it? One would hope that the difference would be very noticeable indeed. To receive the Gospel is not just an intellectual thing, lives are changed, emotions are engaged. Paul talks about ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’ and that is while they were suffering. You don’t become a Christian without the Christian message-do you know that message in your heart?. And if you have believed the Christian message you will be living the Christian life.

What is more you will invariably proclaim the message too, take a look at -vv 7-8 (read). To my knowledge you do not find any exhortation in the NT letters to evangelise? Why? Well, because it would have been like writing a letter to someone encouraging them to breathe. It just happened, like when someone pulls a rope with a bell attached to the end of it, it rings, so those who know the Lord Jesus will in a variety of ways be spreading the gospel.

And finally, all of these things are summed up in v9, as they lived the word, in down- to- earth, observable ways there was a total change in direction (read) First, notice, they welcomed God’s messengers. Do you? Do you love to have the Bible teacher along and hear what he has to say? Second, they turn from idols, that is anything which occupies the place of God in our lives, what we live for, eat, breath and sleep for. It might be a sport, it might be a career it might be another person, more often it is yourself. Now, it is to be Jesus. Which is the positive side, turning to ‘serve the living and true God’ (that is God as he really is and not how we like to imagine him to be) and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath.’ What is all that but faith, love and hope? Trusting in God and not idols-faith; serving him-love, and waiting for Jesus- hope. And what has Jesus come to rescue us from? Adolescent boredom? Mid-life stress? No, but from the wrath to come. That is when we shall really see what it means to be saved, just as a person knows what it is to be rescued as they are pulled from a burning building. Then words will not be able to express the immense gratitude we shall feel to this wonderful God who knowingly and willingly went to the cross to spare us that pain. Now that is a God who deserves our trust isn’t it? That is the God who is to be our love and our hope.

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