Sermon: Sunday, 17th January, 2021 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10
On Tuesday and Wednesday I had in-service training, along with many other Free Church ministers. One highlight of the event was hearing from Andrew Giffin, the new chief executive officer in the Free Church. At his interview, he was asked what he thought were the three greatest challenges facing the Scottish church today.
How would you have answered? This is what he said:
a) The need for evangelism: ordinary Christians like us sharing our faith;
b) The need to remain steadfast to Biblical truth, in an age when so many Christians are tempted to compromise God’s Word;
c) for the whole church to be more prayerful, at an individual, congregational and national level.
In other words, ordinary Christians coming together to pray for God to be at work.
I found myself returning to his words as I studied Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, because when we look at this encouraging section, we have a portrait of a young church which is such a positive model of what a church ought to be, and where ordinary Christians are prayerfully sharing their faith and remaining faithful to Biblical truth. In fact, Paul actually says that this church is a model church! ‘And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:7)
We want our church to be a place where God is at work. We want to see changed lives. How will these things happen? What will bring about this supernatural transformation? Let’s delve in to 1 Thessalonians 1, and see the way which God worked then, which is also how he’s at work now.
1. The perfect combination for new spiritual life
Paul goes back in time, just a few months, to when the Thessalonians became Christians, and he describes to us what happened to them- what brought about the change. It was the perfect combination. I’m not speaking about raspberries and cream, or cheese and wine. The perfect combination, and only combination which transforms people is ‘word and spirit’. ‘Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit…’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5)
Our task as a church, and as individuals is to share the gospel (the good news) with other people. This, of course, involves words. It’s a message all about Jesus Christ, who is able to rescue us from the coming wrath. People urgently need to know who Jesus is, his identity as the Son of God. They need to know about why he died on the cross, and how he calls all people to faith and repentance in Christ for salvation.
However, words alone are not enough: we also need the supernatural power of God to be at work. This is the combination: word and spirit. We need God the Holy Spirit to work in people supernaturally because we are unable to change a single human heart, but God can. ‘Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit…’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5)
The Lord wants us to rely upon and rest upon him to bring about the change in people’s lives. So, the obvious question is how do we do that? If we need this combination of the message and God the Holy Spirit, then surely the only way we can do this is by depending on God’s power in prayer.
That’s why when we’re speaking to people about Christ, even as we do so (using words) we’re praying that God would do a work of power. That’s why it’s so important to keep on praying for those loved ones who aren’t Christians yet. That’s why we don’t just turn up (or tune in) to church cold, as it were, but should be praying that God would use the message to touch us and others.
What does the church in Scotland need today? Ordinary Christian people praying for God to be at work. ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ (Psalm 127:1)
2. The perfect combination for witness
What is the perfect combination for witnessing to others in 2021 secular Scotland? It is ‘sharing the gospel and living the gospel’. If we try to tell other people about Jesus, but our lives are largely unchanged by Jesus, then there will be little credibility in our message. If we speak to others of reconciliation with God, but are not getting on with one other, then there’s a huge contradiction there.
But what do we read of the Thessalonians – this model church? ‘You became imitators of us and of the Lord.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:6)
These new Christians were not just talking the talk, but they were also walking the walk. They were hard working people, with a growing sense of faith, love and hope. They are the real deal. This is a community of believers who really are, albeit imperfectly, taking their values and behaviours from none other than Jesus. They are seeking to be loving and forgiving and humble and kind. Before, they were caught up in idol-worship, and were imitators of society in general, fitting in. Now, however, they stick out like a sore thumb, and news of this change had spread like wildfire. ‘They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9) What a change! They are a community committed to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Will we be like this church? Will we stick closely to Biblical truth, even when it jars with our culture? Will we keep on sharing the gospel message and living the gospel message, when we suffer as a result? Scotland does indeed need Christians who are authentic, who not only share the gospel but also live it out. Friends, we need God’s help with this.
3. A focus on evangelism
This young church is a model for us in their evangelism. They are actively sharing their faith. ‘The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:8) Such is their enthusiasm for sharing the good news, that the gospel ‘thunders out’ from them. This is no secondary activity of this church – it is primary.
We all know what it is to recommend an amazing recipe to someone. Or a new walk: ‘You’ve got to try this section of the Fife coastal path. Or you’ve got to try this restaurant. Or download this app. Or see this clip – it’s so funny!’
The Thessalonians were not shy in recommending Jesus to other people. Jesus has changed my life and he can change yours! Your sins can be forgiven. You can know the living and true God. You can have everlasting life.
We’re so used to hearing about the ‘R number’ and we’re desperate to reduce it, so less people come into contact with the coronavirus. When it comes to the ‘G number’ (the gospel) this church is doing the opposite; they are so keen for others to hear the news. We have a lot to learn from them. We need to contact as many people as possible. We want to see the ‘G number’ rise as high as possible.
4. A summary of conversion
I love this description of what happened to these former idol-worshippers, and it’s what I long to see more of in Fife, and beyond: ‘… you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9)
Mount Olympus, supposedly the home for the Greek pantheon of gods, was 50 miles from the city. However, Paul explained to the citizen of Thessalonica that there is but one true and living God, and he demands that we turn from all false gods, and place our trust in Christ, because he is the truth, the only one who can rescue us, and has demonstrated this in his death and resurrection.
Today in secular Scotland, there’s a different pantheon of gods: money, pleasure and entertainment, and anything else we live for – any other alternative for God in our lives. To become a Christian, you must turn from them. God must become the centre of your life, and not self, or a false religion or an addiction which will never satisfy.
Why are we Christians (verse 10)? Because we are those who trust in Jesus, who has proved his identity by rising from the dead, and who alone is able to rescue us from the coming wrath, the Day of Judgement. Because God is so good in every way, he will not ignore the sin in our lives. His settled and just anger flows out of his goodness, because he hates what is evil and loves what is good. It might make us feel uncomfortable, but the truth is that our sin has consequences which we must face.
But thanks be to God, that there is a Rescuer, who is able to rescue us from the coming wrath, because he himself bore the wrath in his own body, as he died for sinners. He alone is qualified to shelter us from the wrath, and keep us safe both now and for all eternity.
Scotland needs churches wholeheartedly committed to Christian truth, churches which recommend Jesus to those around us, and do so prayerfully, depending on the power of God to work.
What about you? If you haven’t yet sheltered in Jesus, now is the day to give your life to him, so that your sins might be forgiven, and that you might be safe and secure on the day of reckoning. So, pray to him right now, and ask him to forgive you, and to enable you to turn from whatever you currently live for, whether yourself or someone or something else, and to live for him. Now is the time to pray. There is a Rescuer, Jesus Christ; all you have to do is ask him in prayer to rescue you, and he will.