Sermon: Sunday, 10th January, 2021 1 Thessalonians 1
Have you ever been scammed by a fake email or phone call? In the modern world, with so many people trying to steal money, it is really important to be able to recognise what is genuine and what is not. Sometimes it is easy to spot fake emails. However, as the fraudsters get more and more sophisticated, we all need to be careful about what links we click on, and what information we share. Even with the Coronavirus vaccine, the NHS are having to warn people not to give away bank details, due to bogus text messages, designed to prey on the vulnerable. The truth is some people are genuine and some are fake – we need to be able to tell the difference!
The apostle Paul has planted a church in Thessalonica. He has just spent a few weeks there preaching the gospel, and there seemed to be real transformation in the lives of many people. Paul is bursting to know if the change is genuine. He has passionate love for the people there, even after knowing them for a short time, and he just wants to know how they are doing. Has the change been real? Has God really been at work in them? Remember the parable of the sower, where people at first receive the Christian message with great joy, and yet, like shallow soil, they have no root, and bear no fruit.
Paul knows how to spot a genuine Christian. He knows the hallmarks. He knows what to look for: faith, love and hope. ‘We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3)
These three things must be evident even in a new Christian believer, and are marks of authenticity. They are like 3 sides of a triangle – a triad of virtues, found in any true church, and any true believer.
Let’s have some background to this letter – 1st Thessalonians. This is probably the second earliest part of the NT, written around 50 AD, less than 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus. It’s exciting that the Bible is written so close in time to the key events, written within the lifetime of the apostles.
Thessalonica is now in modern day northern Greece. Back then, it was the main city in Macedonia. It was on the strategic Roman road called the Via Ignatia, linking the east to the west. We remember Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia; ‘Come over and help us.’ (Acts 16) We read of Paul’s visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17 vs 1-10, as part of his second missionary journey. Paul did not spend a long time there – just a number of weeks. We know that on the first three Sabbaths he went to preach at the synagogue, as was his normal practice. We’re told the wonderful news that some Jews, many God-fearing Greeks and many prominent women believed in the message.
However, where God is at work, we almost always find Satan at work too, and this is no exception; some of the more jealous Jews start a riot, dragging Christians in front of the city officials, and accusing them of a very serious crime- defying the decrees of Caesar. Such was their hostility to the gospel (Acts 17:10) that as soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.
Yes, Paul and Silas had to leave the Thessalonians, but their thoughts and prayers remain with them. In fact, in 1 Thessalonians 3: 5-6 we read: ‘For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labours might have been in vain. But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.’
We all like to hear good news. For Paul, Timothy’s report is so encouraging; God really has been at work, and the young church in Thessalonica is standing firm, in spite of persecution. Paul is so thankful to God, because the grace of God has been poured out on this church, and his thankfulness comes flowing out of this letter.
1. Learning from Paul’s prayers
How does Paul pray for this church?
• Constancy in prayer
Paul is an extremely busy man, constantly travelling, teaching and planting churches. And yet he prays for this church ‘continually’. This is something Paul is committed to. Why? Because Paul knows that what this church needs most is the grace and power of God.
‘Prayer is the ship that brings home the richest freight. It is the soil which yields the most abundant harvest.’ (Charles Spurgeon)
In other words, prayer is the best of all investments! Do we truly believe that? If so, we will be more committed to regular prayer for Kingdom work. That’s why we send out missionary prayer notes, and prayer notes regarding various church plants. That’s why we never tire of encouraging you to come to the prayer meeting – because God is at work through the prayers of his people.
Challenge at the start of 2021: Am I praying for churches and individuals ‘constantly’? Let’s use the congregational directory. Use the prayer notes. Use prayer lists.
• Thankfulness in prayer
What is Paul thankful for? He is thankful to God for the evidences of spiritual life amongst them; for their faith, love and hope. Paul knows that these things are God-given. They are a work of the Holy Spirit. And so, he thanks God for these blessed signs of grace in their lives. Challenge: Are our prayers full of thanksgiving? What we are thankful to God for is a window into what we value the most. What does Paul value? He values spiritual signs of life in their church, and he thanks God for them.
2. The triad of genuine Christian life – faith, love and hope
Faith in Jesus Christ is the base of this triangle. We cannot be Christians without faith in Jesus. Christians are people who no longer trust in their own best efforts, as if we could earn God’s favour. Instead, we now trust solely in what Jesus has done for us, by dying on Calvary’s cross.
However, notice what stems from faith: ‘We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith.’ (Thessalonians 1:3) Of course, we can never earn our way to Heaven; salvation is a free gift of God. But true faith in Christ is transformational; good works always flows out of a life faith. The saying is true: we’re justified by faith alone; but justified faith is never alone. It’s helpful to see the way Paul outlines the relationship between faith and works. (See Ephesians 2:8-10)
This is my first sermon of 2021. May each of us know this genuine kind of faith, a faith which changes our behaviour, so we’re more fruitful in our obedience to God, and in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
Love is undoubtedly one of the greatest hallmarks of a Christian. It comes from God. ‘… because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:5) Paul heard the report from Timothy about the love of this church, and was delighted.
What can we learn about this love? It produces labour = a strong word, speaking of self-sacrificing labour. What a change has taken place in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians! Before, they knew a lot about self-love and advancing their own cause and that of their families. Now, they have a love for God, for other Christians, and those who aren’t yet Christians. They have a new way of thinking. A new mindset: how can be a blessing to others, even at great personal cost and inconvenience. In 2021, may God give us kind of self-sacrificial love.
Hope completes the triangle – faith, love and hope. Christian hope is something certain. It looks ahead with certainty as it is fixed on the promises of God. And because God does not lie, or go back on his promises, our hope is certain. Our eyes look to the future, and the future is bright. We hope for the return of Jesus Christ. We hope for the new heavens and the new earth. We hope to be perfect in body and soul one day. We hope for the end of all death, sickness, sin, and disappointment.
And these great promises of God are what keep us going in the here and now. They keep Christians going during trials and persecutions. ‘… your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3) Yes, the Christian life is a tough one, but we’re not going to give up because the best is still to come. And that puts a spring in our step and helps us to ‘keep on keeping on’.