The Portrait of a Faithful Church (I Thessalonians 1:1-10)
Introduction: Living a Life that Others Can Imitate
There is a story of a faithful woman which was told in the Baptist Beacon Magazine. It says this:
A great preacher closed his sermon with an earnest and eloquent Gospel appeal. Among the score or more who responded was a woman of wealth and social distinction. She asked permission to speak a few words to the audience.
"I want you to know," she said, "just why I came forward tonight. It was not because of any word spoken by the preacher. I stand here because of the influence of a little woman who sits before me. Her fingers are rough with toil; the hard work of many years has stooped her low; she is just a poor, obscure washerwoman, who has served in my home for many years. I have never known her to be impatient, speak an unkind word, or do a dishonorable deed. I know of countless little acts of unselfish love that adorn her life. Shamefacedly, let me say that I have openly sneered at her faith, and laughed at her fidelity to God. Yet when my little girl was taken away, it was this woman who caused me to look beyond the grave and shed my first tears of hope. The sweet magnetism of her life has led me to Christ. I covet the thing that has made her life so beautiful."
At the request of the minister, the little woman was led forward, her eyes streaming with glad tears, and such a shining face as one seldom sees on this earth.
"Let me introduce you," said he, "to the real preacher of the evening," and the great audience rose in silent, though not tearless, respect.
Oh, ye obscure toilers of the world, ye patient "doers of the Word," think not that no one sees; I say unto you that a great cloud of witnesses will rise up on that great day, and call you blessed!
The world needs more people like this poor obscure washerwoman. We don't require individuals who profess to be Christians but live lives in which others can't tell them from any other person living in this world. There are millions of those in our society already. What we truly must find are those who quietly, and consistently show their faith to a mixed-up society full of people who have lost all faith of their own.
In the book of I Thessalonians, we have a whole church that does just that. And It is to this church that the Apostle Paul writes this beautiful epistle. Furthermore, their example is still worthy to be followed today. Let's begin our study of this amazing church by looking at the historical background of this great letter.
I. Historical Background
If you go to that area today, the city of Thessalonica is still there. It is called Thessaloniki but is sometimes referred to as Salonika.
The city was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. It had the distinction of being the site of a great Mediterranean naval base. Because of its location, it was a prosperous commercial center. The population in Paul's day reached 200,000, consisting mostly of Greeks. However, there was also a large Roman population with a strong minority of Jews as well.
I Thessalonians is one of the earliest letters of Paul the Apostle, written around 51 to 52 A.D. Paul, Silas and Timothy founded the church on their second missionary journey which you can read about in Acts 17:1-14. The Apostle had been drawn to this magnificent city after he had received his famous Macedonian call in which he saw the vision of a Macedonian man calling for help which, in turn, leads Paul into Europe (Acts 16:9).
The Apostle and his team were only there a short time,( estimates vary from 3 weeks to 3 months) when they met with violent opposition from a hostile but organized Jewish population and were chased out of the city. Still the small Gentile church, though under persecution themselves, began to grow and spearhead the spread of the gospel throughout the whole province (1:8).
After leaving Thessalonica, Paul and the missionary team traveled to Athens by way of Berea. However, Paul wanted to find out about the newborn church that they had recently left and sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to find out if they were all right. He had feared that false teachers had invaded them and he was worried about their faith in the midst of opposition. When Timothy returned with a good report, his fear turned into joy, finding that they had remained strong. So he penned this letter of encouragement to the newly founded church praising them for their faithfulness and giving them further instructions on how to remain strong.
For complete accuracy, many New Testament scholars believe that this epistle was written by Paul from Corinth, although several early manuscripts tell us it was Athens. Either way, it was written for the same reason. He was concerned for the spiritual welfare of these babes in Christ.
Paul touches on a number of subjects in this letter. However, he particularly hits on the theme of holy living in the light of Christ's soon return. In fact, this book is the only New Testament epistle to speak about the Lord's return in every chapter in the book. Paul encourages the people of his day and ours to live blameless lives as we eagerly anticipate Jesus' coming back to take us to be with Him.
Of course, we can learn many things from this short but sweet epistle. However, today we are going to look at the portrait of this body of believers and find out what some of the characteristics are of a church that is faithful, even in the midst of strong opposition.
I. A True Christian Has Real Spirituality ( 1:1-3)
The first characteristic that we see is that a true Christian has real spirituality. Paul begins his book with a brief introduction in which he names himself and his companions Silvanus (i.e Silas) and Timothy. He wishes the believers in Thessolonica grace and peace. Then the Apostle immediately begins to express thanks for this young church.
They must have been a breath of fresh air to Paul since many of the churches that he had to address had some sort of spiritual problem that needed to be corrected. This assembly didn't need that. They needed encouragement to continue on as they were already doing. And he wanted to let them know that they were constantly being prayed for by him and his companions.
These weren't Christians in name only who thought of God once a week when they gathered together for worship. Christ was the center of their life and Paul thanked God for three things that stuck out in observing them. They were the three-fold combination of faith, hope, and love. He says in verses 2 and 3:
" We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers. Constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father..."
A true Christian will always be characterized by these three qualities. The Christian life begins with faith. It is the foundation upon which all the other characteristics are built. A person without faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is not a Christian. And it is that characteristic that causes one to live a certain kind of life that is contrary to those without faith.
Upon belief, we become the temples of the Holy Spirit. And it is He who brings about in us the fruit of the Spirit which includes: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). This is what allowed the Thessalonians to live a holy life despite the persecution that they were undergoing.
Faith gives us a purpose for life. As it grows, we no longer wish to live only for ourselves alone. And we begin to realize that this life is only temporary. We start to live in light of eternity and for the difference that what we do brings to God's Kingdom. All that we want to accomplish is seen through the lens of how it pleases or displeases the Lord.
And if faith in Christ is the foundation of the Christian life, then the structure built upon that foundation is love. When we have faith it always produces love. First of all, it brings about love for God. We want to work for Him and do what He wants us to do. A true Christian starts to realize all that Christ has done for them and how the Lord loved him or her enough to give His life on their behalf. This causes the person to be devoted to the Lord. True love is always followed by actions. It desires to demonstrate itself to the beloved. You want to be with that person. You want to serve that person and make sure that they are happy. Well, love for God is no different. To say that we love God and not want to serve Him is not to really love Him at all.
Of course, love for God also produces a true and genuine love for those whom He cares for as well. It brings about a desire to see people saved and to see them serving the One whom we are serving.
Those who say that they love God and don't want the salvation of the world are not being honest. God wants all mankind to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4). So a growing love for God should produce a growing concern for our lost neighbor as well.
The cap on the foundation of faith and the structure of love is a steadfast hope. The greatest thing in the world for a lover is to see his or her beloved. And we should long to see and be with the Savior who loved us and died for us. And realizing that He is coming back should be an additional incentive to live a holy life. We don't want to be found unfaithful to Him because we know that He will return soon. It may even be today, so we continue to be ready for Him when He arrives.
It is amazing how we prepare our homes for the coming of a guest. We sweep it clean, mop and dust. And we tidy the things up that are out of order. We do it because we care about the guests and want to let them know that they are special to us. Not to mention the embarrassment we'd feel if they thought that we were slobs that live like pigs.
If we prepare our homes for the arrival of guests, it should be doubly concerning for us that we prepare our lives for the Lord who is going to one day take us to be with Him in His eternal home. We should not want to be embarrassed by living a life that is displeasing to Him when Christ comes to get us.
True Christian hope is not a wish, as if it might not happen. It is a settled belief in the promise that Jesus said He would return and it is a genuine desire to prepare for that return.
II. A True Christian Sets a Good Example (4-10)
Not only are true believers spiritually real, and are characterized by faith, love, and hope; they also attempt to set a good example of their belief in Jesus Christ. Of course, none of us is perfect and we all sin. However, we need to be as consistent as we can and keep short accounts with God by turning from all known sin and asking God to help us to live a life that others can follow. That is what Paul says of the Thessalonian believers here. They consistently lived out their faith and people took notice.
Here is what the Apostle says of them:
"Knowing brethren, beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth so that we have no need to say anything." (4-8)
Paul goes on to say that Macedonia and Acaia as well as every other place, have themselves reported how that the Thessalonians demonstrated their faith clearly by the fact that they abandoned the dead idols that they once served in order to serve the living and true God. And now they are waiting for His Son, Jesus Christ to come from Heaven who will rescue them from the wrath to come (9-10).
By wrath Paul means the coming Great Tribulation that will come upon the whole world after the Church, the Body of Christ, is taken out of this earth in an event called the Rapture. We will learn more about that in chapters 4 and 5.
But, getting back to the example of the Thessalonians it should be noted that one of the biggest things that the world says against Christians is that they don't practice what they preach. Many people who refuse to come to church say that the reason they don't attend is that it is full of hypocrites. Well, it was Abigail Van Buren, who was also known as 'Dear Abby', who said that:
"The Church is a hospital for sinners and not a museum for saints."
In truth, none of us is perfect and we all sin. In that way, all of us really are hypocrites. However, we need to become more like the Thessalonian church whose faith was well known throughout the world. No one looked at them and wondered if they were true Christians. It was quite obvious that they all really knew and loved the Lord Jesus Christ. And they were willing to suffer for His name.
Every individual who reads I Thessalonians needs to take a candid look at themselves and ask these pointed questions:
"Am I living a consistent Christian life that the world can observe and that causes them to want to be like Christ?"
"Is the church that I go to one that the world looks at and knows that the people of that congregation are true Christians?"
"Do we really have authentic faith in Jesus Christ?"
If not then we must prayerfully make some major changes in our individual lives and then in our church.
In a 1986 article of Preaching Magazine, B. Clayton Bell gave this illustration:
"A number of years ago Norman Cousins wrote an editorial in Saturday Review in which he reported a conversation he had on a trip in India. He was talking with a Hindu priest named Satis Prasad. The man said he wanted to come to our country to work as a missionary among the Americans. Cousins assumed that he meant that he wanted to convert Americans to the Hindu religion, but when asked, Satis Prasad said, "Oh no, I would like to convert them to the Christian religion. Christianity cannot survive in the abstract. It needs not membership, but believers. The people of your country may claim they believe in Christianity, but from what I read at this distance, Christianity is more a custom than anything else. I would ask that either you accept the teachings of Jesus in your everyday life and in your affairs as a nation, or stop invoking His name as a sanction for everything you do. I want to help save Christianity for the Christian."
That is quite a convicting story which unfortunately is still as true in our day as it was then. We don't need more members in churches. We must have true Christians who, like the Thessalonians, have turned from their idols to serve the living and the true God. Frankly, the world can't wait until we shape up. Millions are dying and going to a Christless eternity every day. May we all begin to live out the faith that we claim to profess.
© 2019 Jeff Shirley