Sermon: Sunday, 31st January, 2021 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
Arguably the most amazing change in the spiritual history of Europe took place at the Reformation, during the 1500s. Before that time, even church leaders were largely ignorant of the Bible and the teaching of the church was very limited. Going to church was no guarantee of hearing God’s Word, because it was read in Latin, and so few churches taught the basic truths many of us take for granted, that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
Then so much changed. There was a return to God’s Word, and to the faithful preaching of God’s Word. Tens of thousands across Europe became born-again Christians, and the impact was enormous. Large parts of the church returned to the Bible, and not human tradition as the source of spiritual authority.
As the Reformation began to break, Luther was approached: ‘Explain what is taking place here in Europe? Explain the Reformation.’ He gave this famous answer: ‘I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word. Otherwise, I did nothing. And then I slept. And the Word so greatly weakened the Papacy that never a prince and never an emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.’
The apostle Paul also witnessed an amazing spiritual change in the lives of many in the city of Thessalonica, located in modern day Greece. Before, the people had worshipped idols, lived for themselves and not for God, and many were caught up in sexual immortality and lacked self-control.
After, however, in a relatively short time, this young church had already become a model church – an example of faith, love and hope, as well as of sharing their faith near and far. Even when mocked, ridiculed and persecuted by their neighbours, they resolutely followed Jesus. Very impressive. What was taking place in Thessalonica? The Word did it all. Paul himself knows this change was brought about by God working through his Word and Paul is so thankful for this: ‘And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.’
This is a wonderful truth: that God’s Word is at work in those who believe. (See Isaiah 55:10-11)
1. A remarkable claim
Let’s just pause and try to appreciate just how amazing Paul’s claim is in verse 13. He’s claiming that, in his capacity as an apostle, the words he was speaking were not just his words, but more than that, they were at the same time the very words of God. Now that’s quite a claim. The last book of the Old Testament (Malachi) had been given 400 years before Paul, and since then there had been no more Scripture given by God. But now, through Paul, and the other New Testament writers, God was speaking once again! And because through God’s Spirit, the Thessalonians recognised Paul’s words were divine, from the mouth of God, and because they received them in faith, they came to trust in Christ, and then developed in their faith, living fruitful lives, even in tough circumstances.
It’s good for us to be reminded that the reason we know who God is, what he is like, and what he wants from us is because he has revealed it to us in words. We call this special revelation: God telling us all we need to know about the way to get to Heaven and to know him and how to live.
I love the verses in 2 Peter 1:20-21: ‘Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’
Here, we’re reminded that the Bible is 100 % human and 100 % divine, from God himself. How can this be the case? Because prophets (and apostles) were ‘carried’ along or ‘ferried’ along by the Holy Spirit. Just as a ferry carries its cargo safely to the intended destination, God’s Holy Spirit used the prophets and apostles to carry his own words, so that they would be written down accurately for us.
The application for us today is obvious, I hope. When we read the Bible at home, and hear it read and preached at church, insomuch as the preacher is sticking to what the Bible says, and not espousing his own political views or hobby-horses, then we’re hearing the very words of God! And if we receive them as such in faith, just like the Thessalonians did, we too will know the transforming power of God’s Word, accompanied by his Holy Spirit. The Spirit helps us to understand, submit to, live out and be changed by God’s Word.
2. The Word at work
What are we told at the end of verse 13? The Bible is ‘at work in you who believe’. So, for example, when we read about Joseph forgiving his brothers and showing them kindness, we know this is God’s will for us too, to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God, and treat them with kindness, as we’ve been treated. And when we read: ‘It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality…’ (1 Thessalonians 4:3) we know that isn’t just the opinion of some guy called Paul 2000 years ago, but it is, rather, the revelation of how God wants us to behave now. And as we live that out, the Word is at work.
What is one of the most damaging things a Christian can do? Stop reading the Bible! If we don’t have a regular, daily intake of God’s Word, make no mistake, we won’t grow as Christians. That goes for families too. We’ll damage our growth as Christian families if we don’t learn from God’s Word together. Keep the Bible closed? Let it gather dust? Don’t make the effort? This will negatively impact our marriages, family, life, work life, every part of our lives. However, if we really believe in the power released when we listen to God’s Word receiving it by faith, then we shall read.
Let’s be honest, how are you getting on? Are you serious in the way you read the Bible? If not, then what are you going to do about it?
Perhaps we get sick of hearing preachers coming back to the same things: read the Bible more and pray more. It might sound facile. But we can never move away from God’s living, transformative Word, which Psalm 1 says will make our lives so fruitful and keep our leaves green. It’s that Word which Psalm 19 says is perfect, and refreshes the soul and makes us wise, and give joy to the heart and light to the eyes.
The Bible is a supernatural book. It is God-breathed. It is a word which has great power: power to bring people to faith, and power to sustain and grow believers.
‘For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.’ (1 Peter 1:23) Most of us were converted through the preaching of the Word, and the reading of God’s word. If we want to see our churches growing numerically and in health (Christians maturing), then what better way than mimicking the church in Thessalonica! Faithful churches receive the Bible as the Word of God. They prioritise the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. They prioritise coming to church, because they know this is where the Word is at work.
Young people, the best habit you will ever develop in your life is spending time in God’s Word, receiving it as the absolute truth, and praying to the Lord to help you receive, understand and live by it. We cannot live today from the energy of yesterday’s food. The same goes for the Bible, we need a fresh intake of our spiritual food each day.
We see the ‘Word at work’ in a powerful way in the lives of the Thessalonians. In what way? Well, it is because they were continually being strengthened by the Word that they were enabled to endure persecution and hardship. All Christians will face this to some degree. We suffer today just as the church in Thessalonica did (verses 14-16), and as the churches in Jerusalem did, and as Jesus himself did. Steadfastness in suffering is a mark of the genuineness of their faith. God’s Word really had been at work in them in a saving way, and in a sustaining way as well.
3. The Word is trustworthy
Terry Johnson, in his book The Case for Traditional Protestantism writes: ‘There is much foolishness abroad today. The antidote is biblical wisdom applied to all of life. Where does this leave us? We are battered by this world and its myriad voices and diversity of choices. What is true? What is right? What is important? God has given us an infallible standard. It is absolutely trustworthy and reliable. It gives us the truth of God regarding himself, man, sin, salvation, eternity, ethics, values, and the proper perspective and outlook on life. It is of unsurpassed authority because it alone is the voice of God on earth, given to us by divine inspiration. It is sufficient, making us wise to salvation… equipping us for every good work. It does so, not through hundreds and thousands of rules, but by giving us general truths which the Holy Spirit applies in such a way as to guide us wisely in every situation, circumstance and decision of life.’
Is Johnson right? Is the Bible ‘absolutely trustworthy and reliable’? In 2021, so many people want us to doubt the Bible is the very Word of God. They say what about other holy books? How do we know the Bible hasn’t been changed? Is it trustworthy? And these are fair questions, as if we are basing our lives Jesus Christ, and we base all we know of him from the Bible, then we need to know it is true, and makes sense, and is reliable, and historical and from God. So, how do we know?
I am amazed at how much prophecy there is in the Bible, which is not the case with other holy books, and that all the prophecies to date, hundreds of them, have come true. You cannot make that up. It is totally supernatural. I am amazed at the unity of the Bible, in that although it was written by 40 authors over 1,500 years, from all kinds of different people, from fishermen, to kings to prophets to doctors, it speaks with one voice, with clarity and unity and without contradictions. That is staggering. I am amazed by the way in which it answers all the big questions in life, such as who is God and what is he like? Why is the world messed up as it is? How can we be forgiven? What happens when we die? Why is each human life valuable?
I am amazed that all of the history, geography and archaeology in the Bible has been confirmed by research. And I’m amazed that whilst most ancient manuscripts we take as fact have a small number of copies, the Bible has 25,000. These things all confirm the Bible is the Word of God, but they won’t be enough to convince those who refuse to believe. Let me encourage you to study the trustworthiness of the Bible, as God’s Word stands up to scrutiny. A good place to start is by reading Amy Orr-Ewing’s book: Why trust the Bible?
What is the best way to know the Scriptures are true? Read them! Ultimately, it is God’s Holy Spirit speaking to us as we read the Bible who will impress upon us that yes, this is God’s message to us. And if in the Bible almighty God has spoken to us, then we must listen to him, submit to his authority, live according to his revelation, especially by placing our trust in Jesus, and his death on the cross.
‘… when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13)