Turn, Turn, Turn
1 Thessalonians 1
August 11, 1996
A few days ago a friend sent me an email telling about a question posed to her by a co-worker. Here is the exact text of the question:
How is a Christian defined? It used to be that if you were not Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist, you were a Christian, whether Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopal or Baptist. But it seems now that the word means something more specific. Is it considered to be an actual religion other than Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopal or Baptist or whatever? If so, what makes it different?
Now that’s a very good question. It shows that the person has been doing some seriously thinking about spiritual issues. It also reveals that she has penetrated to a core issue that has long confused millions of people: What is the difference between being a Christian and a church member?
How would you answer that question?
A New Series From a Short Book
Before we plunge into that discussion any farther, let me stop and say that beginning this morning we are starting a brand-new sermon series from the book of First Thessalonians in the New Testament. If you are unfamiliar with the Bible, you might have trouble finding the book because is it relatively short. The best way to find it is to go to the gospel of John and turn right. You’ll go past Acts, Romans, First and Second Corinthians, then you hit a series of short letters—Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. When you finally pass Colossians, you come to First Thessalonians. But you have to watch carefully because it’s a short little book. If you hit First Timothy, you’ve gone too far.
I decided to preach through this delightful little book several months ago. As I thought about the spiritual state of our congregation, it occurred to me that we have added a great many new people in the last several years—hundreds actually. Many of these new people are either new believers or they are relatively untaught in the Christian faith.
Four Things You Need to Know
Before we jump into this epistle it’s important to know several facts about 1 Thessalonians:
1. This is one of the oldest books in the New Testament. Scholars date it at approximately 50-51 A.D., meaning that it was written only 18 years after Jesus’ life and death. As such it is one of the earliest pictures we have of the Christian church in the very beginning. It is, in fact, our earliest missionary document. The only books that may be older than 1 Thessalonians are Galatians and James (which may or may not be one or two years earlier).
2. This is one of the shortest books in the New Testament. It contains only 79 verses. You can easily read it in 30 minutes.
3. It is one of the easiest books to understand. Unlike Romans, there is no complicated theology to ponder. Everything Paul writes is simple, clear, and direct. It is not a doctrinal treatise that raises many hard questions. It is a short letter to a young church.
4. It is one of the most practical books in the New Testament. In five short chapters Paul deals with a wide range of truth. Some of the topics include true conversion, integrity, compassion, the Word of God, heavenly rewards, suffering, prayer, moral purity, hard work, the Second Coming of Christ, the role of spiritual leaders, dealing with difficult people, and testing spiritual gifts. Because it is so clear, it is a great book to preach. It is also a wonderful book for new believers to read. Everyone can understand its message.
Some Background You Should Know
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. The port contained a superb harbor that attracted ships from every part of the Mediterranean Sea. The famous Egnatian Way (a highway system) that connected Rome with Asia to the east passed through Thessalonica. Thus it was a strategic center. Whatever happened there would soon spread everywhere. Perhaps a good modern equivalent would be Miami.
The population consisted of four main groups: Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Orientals. Most of the people were idol-worshiping pagans. The Apostle Paul visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey. After preaching in the local synagogue for “three sabbaths” (which might mean only 15 days or it might mean a somewhat-longer period if the preaching times were not on consecutive sabbaths) he was forced to leave town under pressure from the Jews who stirred up the local rabble.
Some were tempted to give up their faith under the continuing pressure.
Paul’s brief ministry resulted in a small congregation made up mostly of converted Greeks along with a few believing Jews and some leading women of the town. It was clearly a predominately Gentile congregation.
In order to understand the letter you need to know one important fact: Paul left Thessalonica before he really wanted to. His premature leaving caused many of the younger believers to wonder about him and his ministry and some were tempted to give up their faith under the continuing pressure.
A Church Under Pressure
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 alone. Timothy eventually reported back to Paul regarding the state of the young church.
Evidently he told Paul that the church was doing well but was under intense pressure to give in. Certain rumors against Paul were being spread because he left town so suddenly. There were also various moral and doctrinal problems in the church.
Although Paul wanted to return, circumstances prevented him. So he wrote a letter of encouragement to this young church. That letter is the book we call 1 Thessalonians.
The Heart of a Great Apostle
To me, this letter reveals the heart of Paul more than any other letter he wrote. If you want to know what he believed, read Romans. If you want to know what he was like as a person, read 1 Thessalonians.
The letter begins this way:
Paul, Silas and Timothy, 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.
How encouraging these opening words must have been to that young congregation made up entirely of new believers. Everything Paul writes is meant to lift their spirits. They were the “church in God.” They knew the Lord Jesus Christ. They had experienced the grace and peace of God. Paul prayed for them. He thanked God for them always.
Consider the Christian graces he mentions: the work that comes from faith, the labor occasioned by their love, the endurance that flowed from their hope. This trio comprehends the whole Christian life, which begins in faith, continues in love, and culminates in the hope of eternal life.
If the Thessalonians wondered how Paul felt about them, and if they were tempted to doubt the work of God in their midst, they need only read and re-read these opening verses. God had been powerfully at work in those few brief weeks at Thessalonica and Paul makes that fact abundantly clear.
Lloyd Ogilvie on Conversion
With that as introduction the next few verses deal with the subject of their conversion. Step by step Paul recounts how these former pagans became fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. In one of his books Lloyd Ogilvie pens this arresting sentence: “The great need today is for the conversion of religious people who, though they believe in God, are heading away from Him and not toward Him.” (Life As It Was Meant to Be, p. 24). He goes on to say that authentic conversion always comes in response to God’s call and always results in a radical reorientation of the whole life. It changes our direction and that change stands the test of time.
That’s what had happened to the Thessalonians. As we review these verses I challenge you to consider whether or not you have been truly converted to Jesus Christ. And that brings us back to the e-mail message from my friend. How is a Christian defined? And how can you tell the difference between a Christian and a church member?
I. The Preparation For Conversion
Like any good teacher Paul starts at the very beginning. In these two verses Paul answers the question, “What must happen first?” He gives two answers to that question. In order for a person to be converted two things must happen first—something from God’s side and something from the human side. And God’s side must always come first.
A. The Divine Side
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.”
This is the answer to the question, “What must happen first?” The answer is, God must choose you. In theological terms, this is the doctrine of election, which simply means that God chooses those who will be saved. Salvation begins with God’s choice of us—not with our choosing God. Although we sometime stumble at this truth, it should not bother us in the least. It is sometimes made to appear that election is the arbitrary choice of a celestial in choosing some and passing over others. Not so. 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 men to hell but for rescuing them from hell.
I do not claim to understand all the mysteries of this doctrine but it teaches me two things for sure: 1) Salvation is a work of God, not man, and 2) all true believers are eternally secure. No wonder the 39 Articles of the Church of England calls this doctrine “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort.”
On the divine side, then, conversion begins with the work of God in eternity—his divine choice to save men and women.
B. The Human Side
Because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. Lest we should become unbalanced, Paul immediately adds the human side of conversion. God’s election was made effective through the preaching of the gospel to the Thessalonians. The Word was preached with the power of the Holy Spirit, producing deep conviction in the hearts of the hearers.
When he says, “not with words only,” he means that he didn’t simply memorize some evangelistic presentation or rattle off a stale message. Nor did he rely on the cleverness of rhetoric to convince them.
It is the Holy Spirit who takes human words and makes them come alive.
Have you ever wondered why two people can hear the same message and respond in opposite ways? It happens because one man heard words while the other man heard the message. It is the Holy Spirit who takes human words in preaching and makes them “come alive” inside the human heart. This to me is the wonder and glory and divine serendipity of preaching. Sunday by Sunday I never know how people will respond. All I know is that as I preach God promises that His Word will never return void. It will always accomplish his purpose. But I never know in advance who my sermons will touch.
That’s why we ought to pray for the preaching of the Word, that it might be accompanied with the power of the Spirit. For without that power, even the best preaching is useless to change the human heart.
II. The Evidence of Conversion
Paul now moves to the evidence of conversion. In these verses he answers the question, “What should we look for?” There are three answers to that question and they all revolve around how you respond to the Word of God.
A. Receiving the Word
“You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” (v. 6) Notice the little phrase “in spite of severe suffering.” The word literally means to be “pressed to the limit.” It has the idea of being under the thumb of another person, feeling the pressure pushing you down. To “welcome” has the idea of opening your home and heart to another person. In this case it means that the Thessalonians were so glad to be saved they couldn’t be stopped, not even by persecution.
We see this often on the mission field. I have seen it in Haiti and Israel and India and in Russia. In those places where being a Christian really costs something I have seen much deeper joy than I see in American churches. Here we tend to take our blessings for granted. There every day is gift from God and every Sunday is an oasis in the desert of suffering.
True conversion means that you continue to follow Christ even when the going gets rough.
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.
B. Living the Word
“And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (v. 7) Thessalonica was the capital city of the province of Macedonia so anything that happened there would eventually spread across the region. Just as people talk about what happens in Chicago or Hollywood or New York, they were talking about what was happening in Thessalonica.
The word “model” is the Greek word tupos, which literally refers to the impression left by a piece of metal when pressed into clay. Here is a great secret of evangelism. The best way to win others is by the example of your own changed life. Remember what Jesus said to the man who wanted to accompany him on his travels, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you” (Mark 5:19). We all know that a satisfied customer is always the best advertisement for any product. The best place for you to make an impact for Christ is right where you are. You don’t have to go overseas to be a missionary. You can start by living for Christ and showing others the difference he makes on a daily basis.
C. Speaking the Word
“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. There’s a wonderful word picture in this verse. When Paul says the message “rang out,” he uses a term from the orchestra. It means to strike the cymbal. As the Thessalonians shared Christ, the message reverberated throughout the entire region. Just as whatever happens in Chicago will eventually filter out to a four-state area, in the same way whatever happened in Thessalonica was soon talked about in the entire region.
In the words of one commentator, “The Thessalonians sounded ‘Reville’ and the whole province woke up.”
Here, then, is the evidence of conversion clearly explained. First you receive God’s Word gladly, then you live it on a daily basis. As you do, the message of the gospel reverberates in every direction. And those around you begin to sit up and take notice.
III. The Testimony to Conversion
Our passage contains one final truth regarding conversion. Verses 9-10 answer the all-important question: “How does it happen?” This is where truth must become personal for you and me. If you would like to be converted, read on.
These two verses have been rightly called the Three Tenses of the Christian Life. They describe the past, the present, the future of those who have been converted.
A. In the Past
“For they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols.” In the case of the Thessalonians this was literally true. They had been idol-worshipers before coming to Christ. Suddenly their lives were dramatically and utterly transformed.
How had it happened? They “turned to God.” This is what conversion means. This is what it is all about. The Bible sometimes uses the term “repentance” to describe this act.
In the Old Testament there are two Hebrew words for repentance. The first is the word “nacham”. It means to turn around or to change the mind. When you see the word repentance in the Old Testament, it usually translates this word “nacham”. The second is the word sub. It is used over 600 times in the Old Testament and is translated by such words as “turn,” “return,” “seek,” “restore.” It’s very important because you see it very often in phrases like “to turn to the Lord with all your heart.”
Repentance fundamentally seems to change your mind about something.
Now when you come to the New Testament there is one word you need to know—the Greek word “metanoia”. Meta means “to change the mind.” Repentance fundamentally seems to change your mind about something. It has to do with the way you think about something. You’ve been thinking one way, but now you think the opposite way. That’s repentance—the changing of the mind.
A Decisive Change of Mind
Let’s suppose a man wants to learn how to parachute. So he goes to a parachute school and they show him how to rig up his gear, how to pull the rip cord, how to land safely. Finally the day comes when they take him up in an airplane. He’s scared to death but he’s afraid to let on. The moment comes when he is to jump. He goes to the door of the airplane and looks down 2,500 to the ground. His legs grow weak, he’s about to throw up, and somebody behind him is trying to push him out of that airplane. At the last second he says, “No. I’m not going to do it.” They say, “Go ahead, you can do it.” He says, “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to jump.” And he doesn’t. That man has repented. He’s changed his mind in a decisive way.
That story helps because it illustrates how repentance works. Repentance is a change in the way I think that leads to change in the way I live. When you really change your mind about something, It’s going to change the way you think about it, talk about it, feel about it and act about it. I’m suggesting that true repentance is more than just a little game you play in your mind. Repentance is a decisive change in direction. It’s a change of mind which leads to a change of thinking which leads to a change of attitude which leads to a change of feeling which leads to a change of values which leads to a change in the way I lead my life.
Brother Ed McCollum
I can remember over twenty years going to a small Baptist church out in the country to hear Brother Ed McCollum—my father in the ministry—preach in a revival meeting. It was one of those little white church buildings where the farmers would go to church on Sunday. I’ve never forgotten how Brother McCollum explained the doctrine of repentance. He went to one of the platforms and started walking and about the time he got to the other end, he turned around and started going in the other direction. He said, “That’s what repentance is. You were going one way in your life and now you are going in another.” That’s why the typical Old Testament word for repentance is “turn.” Turning is always involved in repentance. It’s a change of mind which leads to a change of direction.
B. In the Present
To serve the living and true God. Conversion fundamentally involves a change of Gods. Where once you served sin and self, now you serve the living and true God. Where once you bowed down to the idols of pleasure, power, material gain and worldly approval, now you bow the knee to Jesus Christ. Where once you served the dead gods of this world, now you serve the living God. Once you followed falsehood, now you serve the true God.
This in many ways sums up the whole truth of the Christian life. We are here to serve God day by day and moment by moment. We are his servants, put here to do his bidding, acting on his behalf, always seeking his best interests and hoping always to please him.
As the song says, You gotta serve somebody. No one is truly a free moral agent. You either serve self or you serve God.
C. In the Future
And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. Here is the future tense of the Christian life. We turn, we serve, and we wait for Jesus to return. This tells us that the Second Coming is not some esoteric doctrine which we may believe or not depending on our preference. It is the fundamental motivation for the entire Christian life.
An Exchange of Gods
Conversion begins when you turn to God. It is nothing more or less than “an intentional turning of oneself to God.” Because it is intentional it does not happen by accident. Nor does it happen automatically. Nor can anyone else turn for you. You yourself must decide to turn to God. No one can make that decision for you.
Conversion also means turning from your idols to the living and true God. You can have your idols or you can have God but you can’t have both. To the Thessalonians this was literally true since Greek religion was filled with idols of various kinds. All the heroic gods who supposedly dwelt on Mount Olympus were nothing more than detestable idols. The religion built upon these idols was degrading, obscene, and perverse. It generated fear, vengeance, immorality, demonism, and slavery. This idolatry was the foundation for government, religion, amusements, social clubs, and everyday labor. It permeated every aspect of society.
For a Christian to reject all that and follow Jesus Christ meant rejecting the very foundation of society itself. Yet that is what Jesus calls men to do and that is what the Thessalonians had done.
The Sin is Not in the Stone
It’s important to remember that not all idols are made of wood or stone or metal. We have our idols today—only they are more sophisticated, that’s all. An idol is anything in the world which we look to as an ultimate source of value. Thus a job, a house, a car, a title, a position, a possession, a prized relationship—any of these may become idols when we look to them for our sense of worth and values.
Remember, the sin is not in the wood or metal or stone. Those things were and are morally neutral. Even the carvings or images themselves were not sinful. It is the meaning or value attached to them that becomes sinful. In that sense anything good may easily become and idol.
Anything good may easily become and idol.
What This Passage Is Saying
Let me summarize in a few concise statements what this passage is saying to us:
1. Conversion is an act of God that begins in eternity with his choice of me.
2. That choice is made real in my life by the proclamation of the gospel by Spirit-empowered men and women who speak with full conviction.
3. Conversion ushers in a radically changed life which is built upon receiving, living and speaking the Word of God.
4. Conversion thus means a revolutionary turning in my life from every idol to the true and living God.
5. Conversion leads to a life of service to God and patient waiting for Jesus to return.
Are You Converted?
1. Changes the direction of life
2. Stands the test of time.
Either you are converted or you aren’t. You have turned or you haven’t. Unless you are converted you will never never go to heaven.
How can you be converted? The answer is simple. You must transfer your trust away from yourself and place it fully upon Jesus Christ. You must turn from self-worship, good works and every idol in your life and wholly depend upon Jesus Christ and him alone as your Lord and Savior.
The Christian life begins with conversion! Without conversion there is no Christian life and if you are not converted, you are not a Christian at all.
A Slavetrader’s Conversion
He was born in 1725, the son of an English sea captain. At the age of 11 he went to sea for the first time. He was forced to join the Royal Navy, tried to escape but was arrested in West Africa. He became the slave of a white slavetrader’s black wife. For two years he lived in hunger and destitution.
He eventually became a slave-ship captain, taking black Africans to the Mediterranean and the West Indies. In 1747 he boarded a ship for England but a violent storm in the North Atlantic hit the ship, which began to fill with water. The timbers broke away from the side. An ordinary ship would have gone to the bottom immediately but they were carrying a local of beeswax and wool which were lighter than water.
In the midst of the struggle to save the ship, the young man said to himself almost without thinking, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us.” By his own word it was the first desire for mercy he had felt in many years. That was the turning point of his life.
He left the slave trade and later entered the ministry in Olney, England. He soon became known as a great preacher who attracted enormous crowds. He wrote nearly 300 hymns—most of which have long since been forgotten. But some we still sing—”Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and the one hymn that is perhaps the most famous hymn of all time. Around the world millions sing it in dozens of languages:
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
Before he died, he prepared his own epitaph, which reads this way:
John Newton, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in
Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he
had long labored to destroy.
That’s what God can do. That’s true conversion. That’s what some of us need right now.
I urge you to turn to God from the idols of your heart. If you have the slightest desire, turn. If you want to be converted, turn. If you seek a new life, turn.
Have you ever been converted? If the answer is no or if you are not sure, with all that is in me I urge to turn to God. Turn from your sin. Turn from your idols. Turn from your past. Turn from your self-worship. Turn from all that is evil. Turn to God and say, “Lord Jesus, I transfer my trust to you as my Savior and Lord.” I pray that you will do it even as you read these words.