Receiving, Turning, and Waiting (1 Thessalonians 1:8–10)

In 1 Thessalonians 1:8–10, Paul, Silas, and Timothy praise the Thessalonian believers for their faith, which had become well known through the region:

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, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

Notice several things about these verses:

First, the Lord’s message is demonstrated in our faith. It is not reducible to our faith. Neither God nor his word can be reduced to the finite limitations of human experience. He always breaks out of our boxes, whether theological or experiential. Nevertheless, there is a relationship between the gospel and its effect on us. If we accept in the gospel, we will belong, behave, and believe in a different manner than we did before accepting the gospel.

Second, receiving the Lord’s message initiates a new pattern of relationship. Notice the first thing about the Corinthians that had gained renown: “what kind of reception you gave us.” Remember Acts 17:1–9! The Thessalonians believed the missionaries’ preaching and sheltered them even though doing so resulted in their persecution and suffering. It’s one thing to show hospitality to people who are popular. It’s another thing entirely—a very Christlike thing—to show hospitality to people who are unpopular. The Thessalonians did the Christlike thing.

Third, receiving the Lord’s message involves changing who or what you worship. “[Y]ou turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” An idol is not merely a physical object that you pray before, burn incense to, or leave gifts for. An idol is any person, thing, or idea that requires the best attention of your mind, the deepest devotion of your heart, and the constant activity of your hands. For many today, money—acquiring it, gaining interest from it, spending it—is an idol. For others, it’s sex, celebrity, or power. Whatever it is, to be a Christian means to turn your back on idols and make “the living and true God” the object of your head, heart, and hands’ best thoughts, feelings, and activities.

Fourth, receiving the Lord’s message involves patiently waiting for Jesus to return. The Nicene Creed states the faith of all Christians when it says that Jesus Christ “will return to judge the living and the dead.” That is his eschatological—or “end times”—role. His return is the end of this age, in which good and bad are mixed, and the beginning of the age to come, in which God triumphs, good prevails, and evil is conquered. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so to we live for the promise of eternal life.

What strangers have you welcomed? What are you turning from? What are you turning to? And what are you waiting for? How you answer these questions determines whether your faith will be remembered.

From Imitator to Imitable (1 Thessalonians 1:5b-7)

Which is more important: what you say or what you do?

In one sense, this is a false dichotomy. Both our words and our deeds are important. Indeed, they need one another. Without deeds, words are empty. Without words, deeds are mute.

Paul brings words and deeds together in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10. Verses 4-5 speak of Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s Spirit-driven preaching that was demonstrated by “power” (miracles) and resulted “deep conviction” in the heart of the Thessalonians. Out of that deep conviction, and following the missionaries’ example, the Thessalonians themselves lived lives that gained renown throughout the area.

In another sense, however, deeds speak louder than words. Consider what Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote in verses 5b-7: “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. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”

In the course of these three verses, the missionaries chart the course from being imitators to becoming imitable.

The course begins with someone to imitate. Here, Paul, Silas, and Timothy themselves are the examples the Thessalonians followed. “You know how we lived among you for your sake.” According to Acts 17:1-9, persecution followed hard on the heels of the foundation of the Thessalonian church. A lynch mob went looking for Paul and Silas. Unable to find them, they dragged a Thessalonian believer named Jason and unnamed others to court, accusing them of sedition. Afraid for the missionaries’ safety, the Thessalonians rushed them out of town in the dead of night. We don’t know how long Paul, Silas, and Timothy lived among the Thessalonians–perhaps a matter of weeks–but their hard work (1 Thes. 2:9) left a deep impression on them.

So, imitable lives produced imitators: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord.” The missionaries didn’t make up their example. They simply imitated Jesus. So, by imitating the missionaries, the Thessalonians imitated the Lord. In what way? “You welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” In reading this, I am reminded of two statements, one by and one about Jesus. First, in Gethsemane, facing certain death, Jesus prayed, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). And second, Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. The Thessalonians learned how to suffer joyfully from the missionaries, who themselves learned it from Christ.

Finally, the imitators themselves became imitable. “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. People who imitate Jesus inevitably become people whom others want to follow. Being shaped by him, they began to shape others in his image.

Words are important. But in a real sense, how you live is your most convincing sermon. So live a life worthy imitating!

The Church’s Physical and Spiritual Locations (1 Thessalonians 1:1b)

The church exists on two planes: Physically, it is located at a specific place and time. Spiritually, however, it is located in God, who is eternal and whose saving purposes for humanity cross the boundaries of geography and chronology. Paul took note of these two planes in 1 Thessalonians 1b: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We often read this address line of Paul’s letter as throwaway verbiage, a mere convention of first-century letter-writing. Letters are from somebody to somebody else, so why pay attention when Paul names his readers? Why? Because Paul doesn’t waste words and transforms epistolary conventions into opportunities for theologizing

Here the theologizing is overt and instructive.

First, with regard to its geography and chronology, the church is “of the Thessalonians.” In the late 40s, when Paul wrote this letter, Thessalonica was a Greek-speaking, free city of the Roman Empire. It was a port city, located in the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, and a hub on the Via Egnatia, the 700-mile land route connecting Roman cities from the Adriatic to the Bosphorous. Proud, powerful, and prosperous—that was the Thessalonica of Paul’s day.

It was also a dangerous place for Christians. Acts 17:1–9 records Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s founding of the church. As was their custom, these missionaries first evangelized the synagogue. Verse 4 indicates that they were successful: “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.” Unfortunately, verse 5 notes, “other Jews were jealous,” and they launched a mob action against the missionaries. This mob went before the city officials and charged the missionaries and their converts with treason: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (verse 7). Such treason in a Roman town could not be tolerated. The Thessalonian believers rushed the missionaries out of town (17:10), but they themselves endured suffering (1 Thes. 3:2–4). The city was proud, powerful, and prosperous, but the Christians were persecuted.

But, second, the physical location of the Thessalonian church must be seen in light of its spiritual location. That church existed—and every church exists—“in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul’s God is not just any god. He is “Father.” Here we see God in his role as Creator of the Cosmos, First Person of the Trinity, and Adoptive Father of humankind. He is a powerful God, but good too—a loving Father, in fact. And then we see Jesus, the Son of God, who really is a “king,” but whose crown has been woven from the thorns of intense suffering.

In all ages, the church finds itself located amidst the world’s pride, power, prosperity, and persecution. But we must keep both its temptations and trials in perspective. For Thessalonica is but a temporary address—sometimes pleasant, sometimes not. God, however, is our permanent home.

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