Preached by Jason Abbott
Community Free is approaching its 20ith birthday. Almost 20 years ago now, this church was planted. And we have a goal, and plan, to plant a church in the future. We want to be a church that plants gospel-proclaiming churches.
But, what does it mean to plant a church? What are the challenges?
Well certainly, the secular world around us isn’t always friendly to the church. There is often a disdain for the Bible, and what it teaches about many, many things. That was true 20 years ago, and it’s no less true now. That’s a challenge.
Another challenge is, of course, to live in a way that brings honor to the Lord. Churches are a gathering of people—sinful, rebellious people. There will be fights. There will be betrayals. There will be constant temptations to live just like the world around us lives—in our business practices, with our possessions, with our sexuality. Our calling as believers is to be in this world but not of this world—to glorify God. And that is a constant challenge for a church.
One of the big challenges I see for church plants, and churches more generally, is missional perseverance. There is a common saying concerning organizational life. The saying goes something like this, “Twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work.” It’s called the 80/20 rule.1 And, when we think about it in relationship to the church, we quickly see how prevalent it is. The same 20 or so faithful people are constantly stepping up to serve while 4-times that number see congregational life as a 2-hour commitment a couple of times every month. There is—without a doubt—a deadly consumer-mindset at work in the church today. There’s a missional laziness at work in the church today. And that’s a huge challenge.
Now why on earth am I bringing all this up as we’re beginning a sermon series on the books of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians? What do all these challenges have to do with a couple letters Paul wrote to a first century, ancient Near Eastern congregation? Well, the answer is a lot.
You see, all those challenges that we face today, when we think about planting and living as a church, were faced by the church at Thessalonica.
They ministered in an environment which was often hostile to the good news; they were often tempted to conform to the customs of the secular world around them; and, they were beginning to drift into a kind of missional laziness. That’s our context. Those were the types of challenges they faced—challenges just like the challenges which we face nearly 2,000 years later.
Friends, we have a lot to learn from these letters. So, let’s dig in.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath [of God which is] to come.
When we look at this first chapter—these ten verses—we can separate them into three quite helpful categories. As we read, we find (1st) a greeting, (2nd) a prayer, and (3rd) a model. And, we can learn a bunch from each of these.
Let’s look at them as they come.
1. A Greeting (v. 1)
Writing letters has become—in my view—a lost artform. If you want to see what I mean, then just read an average letter written during the American Civil War. When I watched Ken Burns’ documentary film series “The Civil War” and listened to the letters common soldiers would send home to loved ones, I was totally amazed by the beauty of the prose. They read like poetry. What was most notable about them were the salutations—“My Dearest Hazel….” or “Dear Mother and Father, I’m still in the land of the living….” In contrast, we begin emails today with “Hey guys….” or “Hello buddy….” (And, that’s if they even have a salutation at all!)
Salutations in Paul’s day were more formal than they are now. They mattered. And, they especially mattered in the ways they differed from the normal conventions of the day. It was typical for a writer in the ancient world to begin with three things—“the sender, the recipient, and the greeting.”2 And, Paul included each of these three in his letter, but he expands the last two significantly. Look at what he writes:
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, [the senders] To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: [the recipients] Grace to you and peace [the greeting] (v. 1).
Look, I don’t want to spend too much time on this. But, what Paul does here—what Paul changes or expands—is significant. He’s highlighting the glorious identity of the Thessalonians. He’s stressing their transformed, gospel status.
I could write a letter to my son or daughter and could just write, “Dear Josiah” or “Dear Esther” in my salutation. That would communicate one thing about them. It would communicate that I have warm and caring feelings in regard to him or her. It would be a very normal way to write them a letter. However, if on the other hand I began with, “My Dear Son” or “My Dear Daughter” then that would be a greeting which stressed the care and love I have for them because of our family relationship. It’d be a greeting that highlights an intimacy of identity.
Friends, that is what Paul is saying to this young congregation at Thessalonica. He’s telling them that they have a new identity because of the Lord’s “grace” to them through Jesus. They now have “peace” with God. In fact, they are part of his family. God is their Father. Jesus is their elder-brother. What a glorious identity!
I don’t know if you think of yourself in these terms; but, if you’re a believer, you should. Paul isn’t merely telling the Thessalonians this. He’s telling you this too. This greeting has been preserved by God to remind us of our new, glorious identity through faith in Christ. You’re a child of God. Amen!
Let’s move to the next part of this passage.
2. A Prayer (vv. 2-5a)
Look at what Paul says next.
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (vv. 2-5a).
Sometimes, when we read passages like this one in the Bible, we need to stop and consider what we have to learn from them. If you’re like me, you might think—“That’s nice. Paul’s praying for the Thessalonian church.” and then move forward in the text. You might wrongly think Paul is simply trying to be encouraging to them, like we might be when we see somebody and tell them we’ve been praying for them, as if Paul’s prayer merely means something like—“I’ve been thinking of you.”
Friends, that’s not all this is. That doesn’t even scratch the service here.
Think about the content of this prayer. What is this Apostle praying for them? Well, he’s thankful to God for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). We can learn so much from what he prays for them. We can learn a lot here about his priorities in prayer.
Often times when we pray, we pray that someone who is ill will get well soon. That’s a fine thing to pray for. We should pray for that. Often when we ask for prayer, we ask for physical provision—a job, house, or spouse. These are also good things for us to pray for. We should pray for them. Please don’t hear me saying otherwise. Please don’t stop praying for such things!
But, there are things we should be praying for above any of these.
The Thessalonians were a persecuted church. They were in a very hostile city. When Paul goes there and preaches the gospel, a riot breaks out in opposition to him and the gospel he preaches (Acts 17:1-9). These Thessalonians were a congregation in real physical danger. And, I’m sure that Paul prayed for their safety and protection. Yet, when he writes to them, he doesn’t emphasize those prayers first and foremost, does he. No. Rather, he stresses his prayer for their spiritual growth in Jesus Christ. That’s far more important in Paul’s view.
Friends, are you praying first and foremost for your faith to be communicated through your actions? For your life—in relationship to the gospel calling upon you—to be an intense labor of love? For your hope in Jesus Christ’s return to be steadfast and unwavering? Is this what you most often bring before the Lord when you pray, not only for yourself but for others? Where better to learn how we should pray than from the inspired prayers of Scripture? We can learn a lot from Paul’s prayer here. And, we should.
Well, let’s move now to our last section.
3. A Model (vv. 5b-10)
Look at what Paul has to say at the close of today’s passage.
You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (vv. 5b-10).
In these last verses, Paul talks about being an example to the Thessalonians. And, then, he talks about the Thessalonians providing an example for the churches in Macedonia and Achaia. Paul boasts here of the power of faithful and godly living. However, don’t miss where all this began. When the Thessalonians became imitators of Paul, they were really becoming imitators of Christ Jesus.
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord (v. 6a).
At a point when my youngest son, Silas, was learning to talk, he began using with regularity the word “actually”—which is a really odd word to hear on the lips of a toddler. He would begin almost every sentence with it, “Actually, I want milk.” or “Actually, I need to poopy.”
Of course, you begin to wonder who it was that taught him to say the word. Where did he pick it up. Well, it wasn’t long until we realized that we’d taught him. It wasn’t too long until we realized how often we use “actually” in our conversations with each other. You see, Silas didn’t need to have anyone plan a vocabulary lesson in order to learn to say it. He learned “actually” quite naturally through our example. He simply followed after us.
And, this is how discipleship works too. We learn to follow Jesus by example. I have a number of Christians whom I admire and aspire to be like, and they certainly have those whom they admire and aspire to be like. In fact, such modeling probably goes all the way back to our Lord Jesus. He had disciples who followed his example. And, they had disciples who followed their example. And so, here we find ourselves almost 2,000 years later.
I think that’s the very thing Paul is praising here in the Thessalonian church. And, I believe it’s what he would encourage us to be at Community Free Church—a model congregation that faithfully follows in the footsteps of the faithful believers who’ve gone before us. In fact, this is why Paul exhorts the church at Corinth to:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Friends, plagiarize the faithful habits of those Christians who go before you. I have so many older men after whom I follow each day. My father is one of them. My doctoral advisor is another. These are men whom I long to imitate as they follow after Christ Jesus.
There are also people in this very congregation whom I really hope to imitate. Men and women who have faced sufferings and hardships with courage and hope. Believers who have praised Jesus to their dying day. What a model of faithfulness! What an encouragement to fight the good fight and to finish the race (2 Timothy 4). Praise God for the model of the faithful who follow after Christ Jesus!
1 This was originated by a 19th century economist, Vilfredo Pareto. You can read more here.
2 James H. Grant, 1 & 2 Thessalonians: The Hope of Salvation, 29.