Model Response - 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
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We had been praying for Tom and Sarah for a long time. They were two ordinary students who were living lives that ordinary students are supposed to lead- eating, drinking, sleeping, occasionally working and doing very little else. However, both of them had a Christian friend, and both of them became interested in Jesus Christ, and then after a long time, to our complete joy, both of them became Christians. It seemed to be a happy end to a long story. At least that was how it was for the first few weeks. Both came to church, both read the Bible, both met with Christian friends to talk about Jesus more. But after a few weeks, it became clear that all was not well. Tom began to get some very strange ideas about what being a Christian meant. He never really came to terms with the change in lifestyle that claiming to follow Christ entailed. His friends were less than impressed and gave him stick, he found church difficult and in the end he just gave up. Sarah, however, seemed to blossom. She didnt find things easy but she did stick at church. She went on a Christian camp in the summer, she found a decent church to go to, she took Jesus seriously in her life. She ended up marrying a Christian man and as far as I know, she is still going strong as a Christian. Two students, one gospel, two responses. And the natural response of those of us who knew them was to be discouraged, worried and angry. Discouragement that both were not Christians, as we first thought; worry about whether Sarah would really stand firm, and anger that Tom had been forced by others to give up.
And I guess those could have been the emotions that afflicted Paul in around 50AD. He had spent a matter of weeks in the Greek town of Thessalonica and only a handful had become Christians. In human terms it was not a successful mission, and he could have been discouraged. Hed been driven out of the town and he could have been worried about his young converts; and hed also received news of persecution that had come upon the young church, and he could have been angry. But Paul didnt see things in human terms. Rather, he saw things from Gods perspective. The mission was not a failure, he told the Thessalonians in 2 v 1. Men and women had become Christians. He knew also that God was in control over this young church and was delighted when Timothy brought him news of their growth and firm faith. And he knew too that suffering was part and parcel of being a Christian, and he was sure God would give them the strength to cope.
And so Paul wrote this letter rejoicing in the Thessalonians new found faith and encouraging them to stand firm. Hes already told them in chapter one that they are the model church in terms of their conversion and subsequent response in evangelism and godliness. Hes told them in chapter two that he was the model minister of the gospel to them, in the face of some severe criticism which had been levelled at Paul. And in this section Paul rejoices that they made the model response when they heard the gospel. And Paul will tell us two responses to the gospel which are characteristic of all who hear the truth. For some, like the Thessalonians, there is a warm welcome to the message of the gospel, but others will give it a cold shoulder. Its a lesson we need to be reminded of after any mission or whenever we seek to tell friends the gospel. There will always be different responses, like Tom and Sarah. So lets look at what Paul tells the Thessalonians under those two headings:
1) A Warm Welcome (vv 13-14)
2) A Cold Shoulder (vv 15-16)
1) A Warm Welcome (vv 13-14)
So first, then, we discover that these Thessalonians gave a warm welcome to the gospel message. And this is certainly the right response to make. And this warm welcome is seen in two ways. First the Thessalonians are seen to be receiving the Word of God. Have a look at verse 13: "And we also thank God continually, because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe." So Paul begins by thanking God that these Thessalonians received the message of the gospel. So clearly this is a work of God in their hearts to rejoice over. But notice exactly what happened. These Thessalonians heard a message from Paul. Now at first glance, that looks very unimpressive doesnt it? A simple message, just words from a human teacher. And yet look what Paul says about those words. The Thessalonians saw that this message passed on by Paul was actually the Word of God. So this message of Pauls had divine credentials. Paul himself was not divine, the messenger was not especially important, but the message was gold dust. It was Gods Word. And they saw in this message about Jesus the truth. They saw in it freedom and new life. And they embraced it willingly. And that is what Paul rejoices over.
Now this is actually mind blowing stuff. Think for a moment. When you heard Pete Woodcock preaching two weeks ago, what did you think? A funny guy perhaps, who was rude about Hull, maybe a weak human speaker whose words you could take or leave. Or did you think: "Here is the life changing power of God"? For that is what the gospel about Jesus is. And when you hear the Word of God taught in this pulpit week by week, what do you think you are hearing? An interesting monologue, a few stories, or random thoughts. No, when Gods Word is faithfully taught, we pray, you are hearing God speak! You are hearing the very voice of God. And that was what the Thessalonians realised. They saw that when the missionaries told them about Jesus, they were hearing the very Word of the living God. And they received it, the welcomed it warmly.
And notice too what happens next. When they hear the Word of God, is that it? Do they just assent to the doctrines and tick them off, and then move on to the next fad. No, Paul says that "this Word is at work in you who believe." In other words it continues its work in these Christians. They have received it and it is continuing to work in them. God is keeping on working in these Christians. And that causes Paul to rejoice. That is why Pauls mission wasnt a failure. Never mind the numbers, rejoice in what God is doing in lives. The Word is at work, and these Thessalonians have received it warmly.
Now there are two particular applications which spring from this verse. The first is that we need to trust the power of Gods word in our friends lives. Gods word is a life changing force. To blind human eyes it looks weak, just a message about Jesus. And yet Paul tells us in Romans 1 that the gospel about Jesus is the power of God for salvation. And he is not ashamed of it. So trust the message to do its work. But secondly, we must ask ourselves, are we known for our warm reception of Gods Word. Is it the thing we delight to hear in Sundays or Wednesdays, or on the other days when we read it. Are we allowing that Word to take root in our souls and bear fruit? You see the right response to Gods word is to receive it warmly, to sit under its message and to live our lives by it, to respond with joy. Yet how often do we sit over it and simply discuss it with not a thought as to how it might be relevant to us.
The story is told of a Battleship which was cruising in a part of the Atlantic Ocean when all of a sudden there was a message on the radio: "Adjust your position 30 degrees." Well the commander was very indignant, so he radioed back: "No, you adjust your position by 30 degrees." So the reply came back: "I insist, adjust your position by 30 degrees." The commander was getting more angry, so he said: "I am an Admiral. I command you to change your position by 30 degrees." Again the reply came back: "I am a first mates assistant. I insist you change your position by thirty degrees." By this time, the Admiral was about to blow his fuse, so he bellowed down the radio: "I am commanding one of her majestys biggest destroyers. I command you in the name of her majesty to move!" There was a pause, and then came back the soft reply: "Sir, you better change your position, for I am sitting in one of her majestys lighthouses." Well it is very easy to think that we have the upper hand when it comes to Gods Word, and yet like that Admiral, we must realise that we need to sit under Gods Word and obey what God says. Otherwise we are treating it just like another mans message. Rather it is no less than Gods voice. And these Thessalonians received that Word and did it!
And yet there is a second part to this warm welcome which Paul goes on to tell us. For how did Paul know that these Thessalonians were genuine believers, that they had truly accepting Gods message? Well the answer is that they were suffering for the Word of God. Have a look at what Paul says in verse 14: "For you, brothers, became imitators of Gods churches in Judea which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews." Pauls point is that he knows they are truly converted because they are willing to stand and take the flack for being a Christian. You only endure pain if you think the cause is worthwhile. Only a truly converted person would be willing to suffer for Jesus sake, unless you are a masochist. And as a result, they have become imitators of the Judean churches. By this he means that they have suffered at the hands of their fellow Thessalonians just as the Judean churches suffered at the hands of their fellow Judeans, those who lived in Palestine. And in this way they have become imitators. It wasnt a deliberate choice on the Thessalonians part, but because they have suffered, then Paul likens them to that first church. And he says that that church is in Christ, they are truly Christian. So by implication, Paul is saying that since this Thessalonian church has endured suffering at the hands of their fellow countrymen then it shows they are truly converted, like the Judean Christians.
And suffering for the gospel is one of the marks of genuine conversion. Paul says to Timothy that those who want to live a godly life, in other words Christians, will be persecuted. If you take a stand for Christ, you must be prepared to take the flak. Were told this no end of times in the NT, from the lips of Jesus especially! Remember Jesus words to his disciples in John 15: "If the world hates you, bear in mind that it hated me first!" Now this is seen in less obvious ways in our country than in some. But it still happens. There are the snide remarks at school from those who know you are a Christian. You may be ostracised by some at university for your Biblical stance on sex before marriage or not getting drunk. Theyll think you weird and stupid. Maybe you have experienced opposition at work from those who think your Christianity is cultish or religious. They laugh at you when you wont work on Sundays and come to church instead. They think you petty minded when you say you wont lie for the company or fiddle tax forms. I know someone who lost his job because he refused to do something which went against his faith. They are all small examples, and who knows what we will have to endure in the years ahead. I suspect we may not be far off more serious persecution. And our willingness to stand up and be counted reveals our heart. It shows we belong to Christ, that we have given Gods Word a warm welcome into our hearts. So if it happening to you rejoice and stand firm. God is counting you worthy to suffer on his account. You have become an imitator of the Thessalonians.
I remember John Chapman the Australian evangelist telling a group of us how when he was a teacher in SW Australia a boy came up to him once, knowing he was a Christian, and said in floods of tears: "Mr. Chapman, some boys have just flushed my head down the toilet because Im a Christian." And John Chapman said to him: "Is that all! Get a grip, rejoice! Are you still a Christian?" "Yes," the boy said. "Good! Now be thankful that God is counting you worthy of suffering for his name. Now run along and stop crying!" And Chappo went on to say that that boy was now working in the mission field and was now as tough as old boots! And true Christians will persevere with Gods strength. And these Thessalonians delighted to give Gods Word a warm welcome by receiving the Word and suffering for that Word. Is that you? Is the word continuing to work in you, and are you able to withstand suffering for Christ? Thats the right response. A warm welcome.
2) A Cold Shoulder (vv 15-16)
But there is a second response in these verses that Paul spells out for us and that is the cold shoulder. For whilst some of the Thessalonians receive the word and give it a warm welcome into their hearts, others reject the word and give it the cold shoulder. And we learn two things about these people. First, they oppose the Word of God. Pauls attention is turned on certain Jews who are opposing the Word of God about Jesus. It is likely that among others, Jews were persecuting these young Thessalonian Christians. Have a look at verse 15: "It was the Jews, says Paul who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and who drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved." Now some writers have accused Paul of being anti Semitic here, but I think that goes far to far. Rather Paul is using these Jews who persecute Christians as examples of those how oppose Gods word about Jesus. Now these Jews have a pretty bad track record. It reached a peak when they opposed the very word of God in the flesh, the Lord Jesus. The Jews themselves didnt actually kill Jesus, nut they forced the Romans to carry out the deed. And throughout their history, the Jews have rejected the prophets God has sent to teach them. They have opposed the word of God. And it is the Jews who are up to their old tricks with Paul and the Thessalonians. They are again opposing the word of God that Paul is bringing, and they have even driven him out of Thessalonica and are persecuting these young Christians. And this opposition to Gods Word has very serious consequences. It is displeasing to God, and they are trying to stop people being saved by stopping Paul preaching. They are opposing the word of God. And if you oppose Gods word you oppose God himself. And there can be no more dangerous position to find yourself in.
You see these Jews are in the same position as many put themselves today. They oppose the word of God. They reject the good news about Jesus and seek to stop others hearing about it. And if you are rejecting the message then please be very clear what you are doing. You are rejecting God himself. There is no difference between God and his word. In the Roman army, the chain of command right from the very top to the very bottom was crystal clear. So if a centurion gave a command, it was as if the Emperor himself was giving a command. And of course, if you ignored the words of your commanding officer, then you were ignoring the word of the Emperor himself, and that was a capital offence. Well are you ignoring and opposing the message about Jesus this evening. Please be aware what you are doing. You are opposing God himself. You are placing yourself in the category of one of Gods enemies. I assure you there is no worse place to be in the whole universe.
And do you see what Paul says about the fate of such people? They must receive the wrath of God, the second thing we discover about people who give the cold shoulder. Verse 16: "In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last." For the Jews, they were heaping up their sins to such an extent that Gods judgement was by now inevitable. It would come in historical and tangible ways in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, as Jesus himself warned, but Paul is also talking about the final judgement to come when Jesus returns. Hes already hinted at it in 1 v 10. There he reminds us that Jesus rescues us from the coming wrath. And for Paul the judgement is so certain that he puts it in the past tense. Gods judgment upon those who continue to reject them is a certainty. And for these Jews, Gods judgement was a certainty. They would receive the wrath of cold.
And that is what happens to those who give God and his message and his people the cold shoulder. He will dismiss them from his presence into an eternity without him. Now if you are tempted to give God the cold shoulder then you need to listen very carefully to these words. As you heap up your sins to the limit, so God is heaping up his judgement to the limit. Dont give God the cold shoulder, rather give him a warm welcome. Turn back to Jesus who can rescue you from the coming wrath. But we might also ask why Paul is telling the Thessalonians this? What are they meant to learn from this? What can we who are Christians take from this second section of the passage? Well surely there is an encouragement that God will one day exercise his just judgement. It would be the easiest thing in the world to retaliate and to get your own back on those who persecute you. But Paul is writing to us and saying, "Let God judge. Let him take the strain of justice. He will act. Trust him." It reminds me of those beautiful words in 1 Peter 2: "When they hurled their insults at Jesus, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly."
So Paul has taught us about two responses to the gospel this evening. The warm welcome to Gods word when we receive it and live it out and show we do by suffering for it. And the cold shoulder as some oppose the word of God and receive the wrath of God. Well which category are you in? Years down the track I can see where my two friends were, Tom and Sarah. Will you give God and his word the warm welcome he deserves, or will you give him the cold shoulder?
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