Keeping Your Faith Alive

1 Thessalonians 1:1-3

September 8, 2002 | Brian Bill

Two country pastors were standing by the side of a highway holding up a sign that read, “The end is near!  Turn around now before it’s too late!”  The plan was to lift the sign up high and point to the words as cars came down the road.

The first driver slowed down enough to read the sign and then yelled at the two clergymen, “Leave us alone you religious fruitcakes!”  He then sped back up and took off down the highway.  From around the curve, the two pastors heard screeching tires and a big splash.  One preacher looked at his buddy with a grin on his face and said, “Do you think we should just make a sign that says, ‘The Bridge is Out?’”

As we begin a brand new series called, “Don’t Be Left Behind,” I wonder if some of you are just speeding down the road of life, uncertain about what lies around the corner?  At the risk of sounding like a religious nut, for the next 14 weeks I will be preaching from the books of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians to help us see that the end is indeed near.

Our nation is currently captured by the prospect of the world, as we know it, coming to an end.  Two months ago, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled, “The Bible and the Apocalypse: Why more Americans are reading and talking about the end of the world.”  A TIME/CNN poll discovered that more than one-third of Americans say that are paying more attention now to how the news headlines might relate to the end of the world, especially after the terrorist attacks and anthrax deaths of a year ago.

Last month, Reader’s Digest reported on the phenomenal success of the “Left Behind” series in an article they entitled, “The Paperback Prophecies.”   Amazingly, the Left Behind novels have sold over 50 million copies (including the kids’ editions).  The ninth book in the series, Desecration, was the best-selling hardcover fiction title of 2001, displacing author John Grisham, who held that spot for five years.  The latest book, The Remnant, had a first print run of 2.75 million copies!  How many of you have read these books?  I’ve read each one.  Amazingly, according to an interview I heard on WGN with Jerry Jenkins, one of the authors of this series, only about half of the readers are evangelicals.  This shows that there is widespread interest in what the Bible has to say about future events.

As we come to our study in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, it’s important to understand why these letters were written. 

1. To give specifics about the return of Christ. 

Each New Testament book has a special theme or message, that is uniquely its own.  Galatians is the freedom letter; Philippians is the joy letter; and Colossians lifts up the supremacy of Christ.  The message of these letters written to the church at Thessalonica is the return of Jesus Christ and how this truth should affect our lives and our churches.  Every chapter of 1 Thessalonians concludes with a reference to the end being near.  

1:10: “And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”

2:19: “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?  Is it not you?”

3:13: “May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.”

4:17: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

5:23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As we walk through these books verse-by-verse, we’ll see that Paul did not look upon the doctrine of Christ’s return as a theory to be discussed, but as a truth to be lived.  Warren Wiersbe points out that these letters encourage us to “live in the future tense” since Jesus is coming when we least expect Him.

2. To instruct new Christians. 

The church at Thessalonica was filled with brand new believers.  The apostle Paul started the church but was not able to spend much time teaching and discipling them.  These letters provide very practical instruction on how to live the Christian life.  Some of the topics include conversion, integrity, compassion, the Bible, heavenly rewards, suffering, prayer, moral purity, hard work, the second coming, the role of spiritual leaders, and dealing with difficult people. 

3. To provide hope in the midst of uncertainty. 

This young church was situated in a very dangerous world.  The believers were facing persecution and wondered how much more they could take.  The parallel to our world is striking.  Over 60% of Americans think there will be another terrorist attack, we wonder what’s going to happen with Iraq, we’re concerned about the West Nile Virus, our economy seems to be on a roller coaster, and companies in our own community are announcing layoffs.  These two letters were written to help believers avoid both withdrawal and hysteria.

Before we jump into 1 Thessalonians, there are several important facts to know about this letter.

  • It’s one of the oldest books in the New Testament.  It was written less than 20 years after the Resurrection.  As such it is one of the earliest pictures we have of the Christian church.
  • It’s one of the shortest books in the New Testament.  It contains only 79 verses and can be read easily in about 15 minutes.  I encourage you to read the entire book at least once a week for the next three months.
  • It’s one of the easiest books to understand.  There is no complicated theology to ponder.  Everything is simple, clear and direct.  If you want to know Paul’s doctrine, read Romans.  If you want to know his heart, read 1st Thessalonians.
  • This church is to be emulated today.  The church at Thessalonica is a model church.  If we want to follow an example today, we can look at some successful churches around us, and that can be helpful, but it’s even better to try to imitate the faith and love of the Thessalonians.  1 Thessalonians 1:7: “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”

Background Information

When the apostle Paul was converted, his life was radically redirected and he became a missionary for the Messiah.  He traveled most of the Roman world, preaching to anyone who would listen and establishing churches in the cities he visited.  In his efforts to evangelize and launch churches, he also met with strong opposition.  The Book of Acts records that Paul went on three missionary journeys. 

On his first journey, Paul and Barnabas sailed to the island of Cyprus and then planted churches in several cities in Asia Minor (Acts 13-14).  A year later, Paul set out on his second trip, and this time his traveling partner was Silas.  Together they traveled to many cities but eventually hit a roadblock.  It was at that point that Paul had a vision in which a man begged him to come to Macedonia.  Without hesitation, they boarded a ship and sailed to the area that is northern Greece today, taking the gospel to Europe for the first time.  On the way, a young Greek believer named Timothy also joined the team (Acts 16:1).   

Acts 17:1-9 records the story of the founding of the church in Thessalonica.  The city of Thessalonica was a seaport town in ancient Greece.  As such, it was an important crossroads for East-West travel and was a strategic center.  Whatever happened there would soon spread everywhere.  After arriving in Thessalonica, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue in the city to begin his ministry.  It was his practice to center his ministry in the synagogue if the town had one.  Acts 17:2 says, “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”  He went to the synagogues because he could “reason” (literally “conduct a discussion”) with the Jews from the Old Testament Scriptures.

There were three points Paul conveyed in his message according to Acts 17:3

  • The Christ had to suffer.
  • The Christ had to die and be raised from the dead.
  • Jesus is the Christ. 

Acts 17:4 describes the impact of that simple message, “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.” While there were many who believed, there was also a lot of opposition.  Acts 17:5-9 says that the Jews became “jealous” and formed an angry mob, putting the city in an uproar.  Eventually, they came to the house of Jason, where Paul and Silas were staying.  After receiving a “pledge” (a bond or guarantee that there would be no more trouble) from Jason, Paul and Silas were released.  Verse 10 tells us that as soon as it was night, Paul and Silas bolted to Berea. 

Paul’s brief ministry resulted in a small congregation made up mostly of converted Greeks along with a few believing Jews and a number of professional women.  In order to understand the letter you need to know one important fact: Paul left Thessalonica before he really wanted to.  His premature departure after only a matter of weeks caused many of the younger believers to question his ministry and his motives.  Paul’s leaving also left a handful of baby Christians, probably no more than two months old in their faith, all alone in the center of a pagan community.

After leaving Thessalonica Paul went to Athens.  From Athens he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the church was doing and he (Paul) went on to Corinth.  Timothy eventually reported back to Paul regarding the state of the young church and told him that the church was doing well but was under intense pressure to cave to the culture around them.  Timothy also let him know that there was some confusion about the return of Christ, along with some moral and doctrinal problems in the church.  It’s with that in mind that Paul wrote this letter of encouragement and exhortation to these young believers.

Please turn in your Bibles to verse 1 of 1 Thessalonians.  In our rush to get to the meat of this book, we may be tempted to skip over the introduction.  We can actually learn a lot by looking at it carefully: “Paul, Silas and Timothy…”   

The greetings in both 1st and 2nd Thessalonians are unique among all of Paul’s letters because of how Paul refers to himself.  In the other epistles he describes himself as an apostle, a servant, or a prisoner.  

  • We’re to serve as equals.  This gives us a clue about Paul’s close relationship with these believers.  He doesn’t have to prove who he is, or appeal to any title.  He is simply “Paul.”  While I don’t mind when people call me Pastor Brian, I prefer just “Brian” because I feel so close to each of you.  Have you ever noticed how we as believers have our Christian celebrities?  We lift up musicians and pastors because they sing songs or write books.  This greeting stands as a wonderful corrective to our veneration of spiritual super stars.
  • We’re to serve on a team.  The inclusion of Silas and Timothy as co-authors and ministers is also worth pondering.  Paul places them on the same level as himself.  All three of them are sending this letter to the church.  Here we see Paul’s consistent practice of working as part of a team.  Unlike itinerant philosophers of his day, whenever possible Paul was accompanied by others.  One of the things that attracted me to PBC three years ago was the sense of teamwork among the elders and deacons.  I’m convinced that a team approach to ministry is always the best way to go.  Whether it’s the worship team or the AWANA team, ministry is best accomplished by a spiritual squad of sold out Christ followers, who serve as equals, according to the giftedness of each individual. 

Basic Christian Vocabulary

As we walk through the first three verses of this letter, we’re going to come across eight basic Christian vocabulary words.  I read the introduction to a book this week called, “The Dimwit’s Dictionary” in which the author suggests that too many of us rely on trite words and phrase.  He argues that we should begin using different alternatives so that we don’t rob expressions of their meaning.  The same is true with biblical terminology.  Because of our familiarity with words like church, God, Jesus, grace, peace, faith, love, and hope, it’s easy to gloss over their meaning.  While I’m not arguing for new words, if we want to keep our faith alive, we need to go back and recapture the stunning significance of the Christian lexicon.

Please follow along as I read: “…To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.  We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers.  We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

1. Church. 

In our culture today, the word “church” is almost always associated with a building.  That wasn’t the case in the first century.  This letter is directed to the “church of the Thessalonians.”  

The word Paul uses is ekklesia, which originally meant, “a gathering of citizens called out by a herald from their homes into a public place.”  Paul, Silas and Timothy are writing to a gathering of people who have been called together to come and meet with God.  Notice that this group has gathered in a specific geographic location.  As believers, we are part of the church universal because God has called us out and we’re to be plugged into a local assembly because that’s the only way to minister as a team.  While some people will say that they don’t need to be part of a church in order to be a Christian, I don’t know how someone can fully function as a Christ-follower without being committed to a community of called out Christians.

2. God the Father. 

The church is made up of people who can call God their Father.  The only ones who can do this are those who have become His children through the new birth.  John 1:12: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

3. Lord Jesus Christ. 

To further clarify, the church is a company of believers in a particular place who affirm that they are children of God the Father and who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord.  Each word of this phrase is crucial to understand.  

  • Jesus is His name.  We worship and follow a real person who was born, who lived, died, and rose from the dead.  
  • Christ is not His second name; it’s a title out of the Old Testament, which refers to the Messiah, or “anointed one.”  Jesus is the promised One, of whom the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied.  To be more precise we could say it this way, “Jesus the Christ.”  That’s what Peter said in Matthew 16:16, when he declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
  • Lord means that Jesus the Christ has absolute authority over our lives.  You should only call Him Lord if you are serious about living under His leadership.  Romans 10:10: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
The church does not even exist, and certainly has no life, apart from God and His saving work in Christ

Here’s another way to look at these three terms.  Jesus focuses on his life, Christ emphasizes his substitutionary death and resurrection, and Lord expresses his supremacy over all things.  By saying that the church is in “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” this ekklesia is distinctively different than any other assembly.  The church does not even exist, and certainly has no life, apart from God and His saving work in Christ.  The monotheistic confession of “God the Father” involves a rejection of the Thessalonians’ former gods, while the acknowledgment of Jesus as Messiah and Lord distinguishes the Christian movement from Judaism.

The next two terms combine expressions from Jewish and Gentile customs.  Jews wished each other “peace” and Gentiles greeted each other with “grace.” 

4. Grace. 

It was very common for letters in the first century to begin by identifying the author, then the recipients, followed by a greeting.  But instead of using the usual greeting, like “hi,” “hello,” or “what’s up,” Paul and his team use the word “charis” which resembled the common Greek salutation in sound but had an entirely different meaning.  Grace refers to the kindness of God and focuses on His unmerited favor toward us.

5. Peace. 

The word used here is the Greek translation of the Old Testament word shalom and has both an external and internal element to it.  Because of God’s grace, we can be at peace with Him, we can live in peace with each other, and we can experience the inner peace that surpasses human understanding.

The team of three then expresses their thankfulness for the Thessalonians in verse 2.  They “always” or at “all times” give thanks for these quickly growing believers.  And when they think of them they pray for them.  That’s a great model for us to follow.  When we thank God for people, we’ll be more likely to pray for them.  The more they thanked, the more they prayed, and then they smiled as they remembered three final things that the Thessalonians did to keep their walk with God fresh.  In the midst of tough times, these believers were commended for their work, labor, and endurance.

This is the first time that Paul uses what was to become one of his favorite trilogies: faith, love and hope.  These three terms function almost as a shorthand summary of the essentials of Christianity.  They are linked together in Romans 5:1-5 to show how we can be sustained in times of trouble.  In Galatians 5:5-6 and in Colossians 1:3-5, faith is tied to hope and to love as an inextricable aspect of the believer’s walk with Christ.  In Ephesians 4:1-6, faith, love, and hope are set forth as the basis for Christian maturity.  The best known use of this terrific trifecta is found in the midst of Paul’s lengthy discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”  

6. Work produced by faith. 

Many of us struggle with this one because we often think of faith as primarily an intellectual exercise.  As evangelicals, we seldom refer to faith and work in the same sentence.  The Greek word used here has the sense of vocation, not necessarily toil or labor.  One dictionary defines it this way: “The course of conduct which springs from faith.”  That reminds me of Elton Trueblood’s book called, “Your Other Vocation.”  His thesis is that our primary vocation is being a Christian.  How we make a living is our other vocation.  Friends, our church would never be the same if we would grasp that our real job is to follow hard after Jesus and to serve Him without reservation.  Our calling is to make following Christ our career.

Faith must always demonstrate itself in action.  We are saved by faith alone but that faith should produce good works.  James 2:17: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  We don’t work in order to be saved; we work because we are saved.  We are not justified by faith plus works, but by a faith that works.

7. Labor prompted by love. 

Because of love, we’re willing to labor.  I got teary on Wednesday night when I saw all the AWANA leaders who were laboring out of love for Christ and for children.  When I was completing this message yesterday, I smiled as I looked out the window and saw elders and deacons putting the finishing touches on the parking lot and the landscaping for the open house this afternoon.  This church is full of laborers because it’s full of lovers!  

It’s not always easy to serve though, is it?  The word translated “labor” means “to cut” and carries with it the idea of toil and hardship.  The word for love is “agape,” which refers to a self-sacrificing love.  Believers should always be willing to give themselves to others, even if it involves hardship.  Only God’s kind of love can keep us laboring because it’s too difficult to do it for any other reason.

Are you laboring out of love, or are you grunting it out with guilt?  

I’m reminded of what Jacob said when he labored for Laban for seven years in order to get Rachel for his wife in Genesis 29:20: “So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.”  Friend, do you love Christ so much, that your labor for Him is no big deal?  When you work for years does it seem only like a few days?  When you put in hours, does it seem like just a few minutes?  Are you laboring out of love, or are you grunting it out with guilt? 

8. Endurance inspired by hope. 

To endure does not mean to passively accept something but to demonstrate strong fortitude in the face of opposition or difficulty.  The Thessalonians had remained strong even though they were being persecuted.  Biblical hope is not something vague but refers to the assurance of better things to come.  It means to look forward with total confidence.  The word hope as used in these letters, refers to the return of Christ.  We can endure just about anything, because we know that Jesus is coming again and will make everything right. 

I like the story about the boy and his dad who were planning a fishing trip for the next day.  That evening as the father was putting his son to bed, the boy hugged his father’s neck and said, “Daddy, thank you for tomorrow.”  Because of the certainty of the second coming, 1 Thessalonians 4:13 tells us that we do not have to struggle and grieve like those who have no hope.  We can thank God for tomorrow.

The End is Near

Friend, does your faith produce fruit?  Does your love cause you to labor?  Does your hope help you to hang in there?  The end may be near, but for those of us who know Christ it’s just the beginning.  I have some good news this morning.  The bridge is not out!  Because of God’s grace as demonstrated when Jesus the Christ died as your substitute, you can have peace with God the Father when you surrender to His supremacy.

Are you willing to do that right now before it’s too late?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?