Marks of a Healthy Church
1 Thessalonians 1:4-10
September 15, 2002 | Brian Bill
After the sermon last week, someone came up to me and asked me a question: “If First Thessalonians is one of the shortest and easiest books to understand, why are you taking 14 weeks to preach through it?” I told him that he should be glad I’m not preaching through the Book of Romans!
The reason we’re going through the books of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians so carefully is because these letters have a lot to teach us. Last week we looked at some basic vocabulary words to help us keep our faith alive. This morning, we’re going to finish chapter one as we focus on the “Marks of a Healthy Church.”
Paul, Silas and Timothy introduced us to the Thessalonian church in verse 1. They were thankful for these believers in verse 3 because their faith was fruitful, they labored out of love, and they had hope that hung in there. As we come to our passage today, we’re going to do a “church check-up” by looking at how we line up with the congregation in Thessalonica. There are at least three “vital signs” that should be evident in our congregation in order for us to be considered a healthy church.
Vital Signs of a Healthy Churc
1. The first mark of a healthy church is that it’s filled with chosen people (4).
Look at verse 4: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.” In theological terms, this is the doctrine of election in capsule form, which simply means that God chooses those who will be saved. Salvation begins with God’s choice of us—not with our choosing God. Jesus put it this way in John 15:16: “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” Ephesians 1:4 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” The Bible teaches that every person who comes to know Jesus Christ has been personally chosen by God.
Although we sometimes stumble at this truth, it should give us more comfort than questions. The Bible teaches that election flows from the love of God. That’s why Paul calls these new believers “brothers loved by God.” Election is not a device for sending people to hell, but for rescuing them from hell.
I do not claim to understand all the mysteries of this doctrine but it reminds us of two things:
- Salvation is a work of God, not man.
- Because of that, all true believers are eternally secure.
No wonder the Church of England refers to election as “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort.”
2. A healthy church is filled with changed people (5).
Look at verse 5: “Because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” Paul was sure of the Thessalonians’ election because of their response to the gospel message. If you’ve come to know Jesus Christ, then that itself is sure proof that God has elected you. Your conversion demonstrates that you’ve been chosen.
In God’s sovereignty and love, He has decided to use the preaching of the gospel to make His election effective. I don’t have time this morning to get into a detailed explanation of how God’s choosing of us and our responsibility to respond all work out, but I will say that both are taught in Scripture. We must affirm that God is God. He does what He wills, showing mercy on whom He shows mercy. At the same time, humans have the freedom to respond. I like how Gary Demarest puts it: “The invitation to the ekklesia is trumpeted to all. Christ died for all people without distinction. Indeed, whoever will may come.”
Charles Spurgeon was once asked, “How do you reconcile God’s election with our responsibility to respond?” I love his answer. This is what he said (I’m paraphrasing), “Reconcile? Reconciliation is for enemies. God’s election and human responsibility are friends. They’re both taught in Scripture.”
In the Thessalonians’ case, it was their changed lives that gave evidence that they had been chosen. When the gospel came to them, they responded and their lives were radically redirected.
- The gospel was preached verbally. Acts 17:2 tells us that Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” Paul and his team used words to communicate the truth but they recognized that it wasn’t their eloquence that would bring people to faith.
- The gospel came with power. Friends, never forget that the Word of God is filled with explosive power to change lives! Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…” When the Bible is faithfully proclaimed, it is the most powerful force in the world.
- The gospel came with the Holy Spirit. When we share words of life with someone who needs to hear them, they are not just words; they are filled with the power that only comes from the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…”
- The gospel came with deep conviction. This has two possible meanings. When we share the truth verbally with someone, we can be confident that the Holy Spirit will give us the strength, courage, and power to do so. It can also refer to the deep conviction that comes over people when the gospel penetrates their hearts. I was reminded recently that as believers we’re not called to condemn people, but to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work of conviction. Too many times we go off on people either to their faces, or behind their backs with gossip, instead of praying for the Holy Spirit to do His work in their lives.
When the Bible is read, taught, and preached, and is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, lives will change
Have you been changed by the gospel? I’m not just talking about conversion, though that’s the first place to start. Are you allowing the Holy Spirit freedom to take the Word of God and apply it to specific areas of your life so that you are different today than you were last week, last month, last year? When the Bible is read, taught, and preached, and is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, lives will change.
A healthy church is full of chosen and changed people. There’s a third vital sign of a strong congregation…
3. A healthy church is filled with charged up people (6-8).
Someone has said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” This church was not in danger of getting run over because they were on the move for Christ! In order for us to be charged up Christians, we would do well to follow in their steps.
- Imitate those who follow Christ. Look at the first part of verse 6: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord…” These new believers looked at Paul, Silas, and Timothy as worthy of imitation. Every one of us should have at least one person in our life that we can look up to and model our life after. Notice that these new believers observed the lives of changed believers and learned from them, but more importantly, they tried to imitate Christ Himself. When you follow the example that a fellow believers sets, you will eventually discover that even the most godly person has some areas in his or her life that need work. Here’s the principle. Follow faithful mentors to the extent that they are imitating the Lord. 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Only imitate those things that you would expect to see in Jesus.
Do you have a mentor? Do you have someone who is discipling you? If not, look for ways to spend time with a brother or sister who is more fired up for Jesus than you are.
- Get excited about the Word even when it’s tough. These new believers had it tough from the very beginning, and yet we see in the last part of verse 6: “in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” It’s not easy to be a Christian, is it?
The Thessalonians experienced “severe suffering” and yet were filled with joy. Paul and Silas definitely modeled this for them when they preached the gospel in Philippi and were stripped, beaten, flogged, and thrown in prison. We read in Acts 16:25 that “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” while they were locked up. It was if they couldn’t hold their hearts in!
Suffering and joy are mentioned together because joy is not based upon circumstances but upon Christ. Friend, if you’re serious about following Jesus, then get ready to suffer. 2 Timothy 3:12: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
You may be the only Christian in your family and you wonder how much longer you can take the ridicule. Maybe you’ve stood up for Jesus at work or school and now people treat you differently. One of the questions for the Women’s Bible study this past week hit it on the head, “What kinds of experiences have you had in your Christian walk in which you suffered in one way or another for your beliefs? What was your response to those experiences?”
Are you willing to suffer for your Savior? Do you consider it a privilege to stand up for Jesus and to do it with joy, no matter how people respond? Jesus never invites us to receive him on a trial basis, although some try to do just that. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” True conversion means that you continue to follow Christ even when the going gets rough. I love how the apostles modeled rejoicing in the midst of rejection in Acts 5:41-42: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”
- Be a model for others. The Thessalonians looked up to Paul, Silas, and Timothy and were pumped up by their example. Because they were so sold out for Christ, they themselves became a model for other believers in verse 7: “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” The word “model” refers to a stamp or a die that was used to reproduce coins. These believers made an indelible impression not just on their neighbors but also throughout the whole country of Greece. They made a mark for their Master.
As we put verse 6 and verse 7 together, we see that we all need spiritual mentors in order to live charged up lives and we must also become examples to those who are just starting out in their faith. Gordon MacDonald, in his book, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, urges us to have at least one VIP (a very important person) and at least one VRP (a very resourceful person) in our life. We need people around us who will pour passion into us. In turn, we must pour our lives into at least one VTP (a very trainable person).
Fellow believer, can I challenge you to find someone to mentor? There are a number of new Christians here at PBC who would give anything to be discipled by you. Don’t be a pew potato. Titus 2:3-4 challenges older women to “do life” with younger women. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul exhorts Timothy to entrust the message to reliable men who can in turn teach others.
- Trumpet the Good News. These Christ-followers were so charged up that they couldn’t keep the good news to themselves. Look at verse 8: “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.” Notice that these believers had a worldwide reputation. When Paul would travel, people would tell them about the changed lives of the charged up Christians from Thessalonica! By the way, our church has a reputation like that. When I talk to people from this community and from other towns in this area, many times I hear them speak about what is going on at PBC. The Thessalonians believed the gospel, they lived it, and they shared it. Just like many of you are doing.
The word picture that is used here is fascinating. The phrase “rang out” is the same word used to describe the sound of a trumpet or the booming of thunder that echoes through a valley. It’s the picture of brass instruments sounding off and then continuing indefinitely, like a prolonged echo. The Thessalonians trumpeted God’s news and it reverberated through all the hills and valleys of Greece, and then picked up speed as it traveled to other countries as well. Friends, when we trumpet the Good News, it echoes from one person to the next. All we need to do is open our mouths and let the words out. Once the message is out, it will bounce from life to life as it crescendos into the sounds of conviction, conversion, and charged up lives.
evangelism is what spills over when we bump into someone
Have you noticed that the longer we are Christians, the quieter we can become about Christ? We must be vigilant and fight against this. One way to do that is to be around baby believers. The key is to become charged up about being chosen and being changed. When we are, then what we have will echo to others. These believers didn’t launch an evangelistic campaign or hold a revival meeting. It was their changed lives that trumpeted across the region. Never forget that evangelism is what spills over when we bump into someone. Are you bumping into people? What spills over when you do? The conduct of the messenger must be consistent with the content of the message.
Vital Signs of a Healthy Christian
It’s my assessment that our church, based on the three vital signs of being chosen, changed, and charged up, is a healthy congregation. In verses 9-10, the diagnostic tests become a bit more specific and personal. In the first half of this chapter, the focus is on the health of the church, in these final verses, the emphasis is on the health of the Christian. The vital signs are fairly easy to read. Have you turned? Are you serving? And are you waiting?
1. Have you turned?
Look at the middle phrase of verse 9: “…They tell how you turned to God from idols…” Situated just 50 miles from Mount Olympus, where the Greek gods were said to live, when the Thessalonians turned to God and away from idols, seismic shock waves reverberated throughout the entire region. I want you to notice that first of all, they turned to God. The word “turned” means to “change your mind in such a way that it leads to a change in the way you live.” That’s what repentance is all about.
Secondly, they turned to God. Their first movement was toward God. This is very significant and is different from the way many of us think. We think we have to clean ourselves up first, and then, after we’ve become more spiritually presentable, then we’ll get serious about our faith. We have it backwards. There is no way we can straighten ourselves out on our own anyway. Some of you have been trying for years to deal with some things and you think that God won’t really accept you until you stop swearing or drinking or smoking or gambling or cheating or lying or telling the pastor to preach shorter sermon series.
Listen carefully. The issue is not improving your behavior; it’s turning to Jesus. Clean up time comes later. Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” The order is significant. We can’t leave our idols and then try to find God. What happens is that we discover the beauty, glory and greatness of God as we see the changed lives of His followers. When we see it, we want it, and so we turn to God.
Third, they turned to God from idols. Now, we might check out at this point because we don’t have idols on every street corner like they did in Thessalonica. Actually, modern America is one of the most idolatrous places in the world. A man from another country visited the States and when he returned home someone asked him if America worshipped idols. This was his answer: “Yes they do. They have three of them. In the winter they worship a fat man in a red suit. In the spring they reverence a rabbit. And in the fall they sacrifice a turkey!”
Unfortunately, we have way more than three idols in our culture. An idol is really a God-substitute, which is anything that takes the place of the Almighty. The possibilities are really endless because every human heart has an altar in it. We’re born to worship, whether it’s a lover, a Lexus, our labor, or our leisure time. Jonathon Edwards has said, “The great contest for the human heart is between the true God and idols.”
Friend, have you turned to God and away from idols? Until you do, you’re not really a follower of Christ. Maybe you’ve just tried to add Jesus to your life, but you’ve subtracted nothing. It doesn’t work that way. You and I must turn to God and turn our backs on that which has been taking the place of God. You can’t have it both ways. Conversion involves a radical transfer of allegiance. Jesus put it this way in Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
2. Are you serving?
The last part of verse 9 brings us to the second question: Are you serving? Let’s look at it: “…To serve the living and true God.” Before we turned to God, we served sin and self, now we serve the Savior. God is the only living God, the only one who can give life to us. The idols we have adored are really dead and only bring death and destruction to us. A common characteristic of all idols is that they promise more than they can deliver.
The word “serve” here is the same word used for a slave and is in the present tense to show that service is a continual activity, not a once-in-awhile action. Servanthood is a lifestyle. A slave served at all times, always eager to obey the Master and to do his will. When we come to Christ in salvation, our lives come under another master. Friend, if you’re saved, you should be serving. In fact, we could put it this way: you are saved to serve. Serving is our calling, our purpose, and why we are still here on earth.
3. Are you waiting?
It’s interesting that we’re to wait even while we work. After turning, we serve, and while we serve, we wait. Look at verse 10: “And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” These new believers waited with a sense of expectancy for Jesus to return to earth. When they worshipped idols they had no hope for the future but now they had hope that Christ would make everything right. The word translated “wait” here means “to await someone with patience and confident expectancy.” It hearkens back to Acts 1:11: “…This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
This passage is a precursor to the teaching of the Rapture, which we will study when we get to chapter 4. These believers were waiting for Jesus to rescue them from the coming wrath. The word “rescue” points to Christ doing the action and the phrase “coming wrath” refers to something yet to come. Let me point out that this is not a hope that their present sufferings will end, though they would. This is also not referring to being rescued from sin and avoiding the fires of hell, although that would happen as well. This phrase is pointing to something yet future, to a time of unprecedented tribulation. Those who have been changed by conversion will be rescued, or taken away from this time of wrath.
Now, most Americans don’t want to hear anything about God’s wrath. We’d rather focus on His love. But, we can’t get away from the fact that the “terrible day of the Lord” as mentioned in Joel 2:31, is a time when God’s judgments will rain down upon the earth. If you’ve been reading the “Left Behind” books, this is a reference to the 7-year period of tribulation that will be ushered in after believers are raptured.
While the Old Testament is replete with references to God’s wrath, it’s helpful to remember that the New Testament contains many verses that deal with this topic as well. Here’s just a brief sampling:
John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
Romans 1:18: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
Revelation 14:19: “The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath.”
If you know Jesus Christ, if you have turned to God and away from idols and your life has been changed by His power, then you will be rescued from this coming wrath. If you have never been converted, then you will be left behind when Christ returns and you will have to face the terrible day of the Lord. This is real stuff.
Church, it’s time for a check up. How are we doing? Is PBC filled with chosen, changed, and charged up Christians? I think so, but the only way to really know is for each of us to take an inventory of our own lives.
Believer, it’s time to get off the fence and check your vital signs. Have you turned and are you serving and waiting? It’s time to allow Christ to change you so that you can live a charged up life for Him as you spill the gospel message into the lives of those who don’t yet know Christ.
If you’re not sure you’re saved this morning, then by all means, turn to God and away from that which has been controlling you. It’s time for a check up. What idols have you been worshipping? Receive the free gift of eternal life by putting your total trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins.
This past week I met a guy when I was working out. He’s a truck driver from Texas who had come to town to pick up a load for his truck. After showing him the locker room, I noticed that he was wearing a baseball hat with the name “Jesus” on the back. I asked him if he was a believer and I’ll never forget his answer. This is what he said: “All day long.” That’s good. We then talked about how important it is for us to live like a Christian 24/7. When we do, the message of the gospel will go out like a trumpet, calling people to faith in Christ. How are you living?