The end of the calendar year is the beginning of the church year. Both are characterized by waiting for the Christmas holiday, but the objects of their waiting can be quite different. The differences are not always good vs. bad, or spiritual vs. worldly, although there is a danger of corrupting Christmas for selfish purposes. Consider gift giving as just one example of Christmas waiting. Most of you would renounce a “gimme gimme gimme” attitude by instead giving presents to loved ones. But you would probably be upset if you didn’t receive any gifts in return, especially if it continued year after year. That’s the way our waiting and expectant hearts work. But God’s way is to give to those who cannot repay him. He waits for the joy of giving, not getting. That’s the kind of gift Jesus is to us. Waiting for the Christ of Christmas requires a very different kind of attitude, a different kind of waiting.
How do we redeem an annual holiday season that is bound up in waiting so that our waiting doesn’t contradict or work against the eternal things we are waiting for? By remembering who we are, what we’re supposed to do, and where we’re going. First Thessalonians 1:1-10 is a Bible passage that addresses this question. It says when Christians imitate the Lord and his apostles by turning, serving, and waiting, their faith in God’s word is commended far and wide. This early church model is a brief summary of the Christian life. Let us follow their example to gain a faith, love and hope that cannot be shaken.
Before we begin it’s important to get a little background on the historical context of this passage found in Acts 17:1-9. Paul and his missionary team write to the new believers in the church of Thessalonica. Paul is constantly prayerful and thankful for them as they have become a model for all Christians. The shape of their Christian life is described in verse 3 and explained in the remainder of the chapter.
A Faith that Functions
What do I mean by a faith that “functions”? Warren Wiersbe sums it up well: “We are not saved by faith plus works, but by a faith that works.” Nor is faith some sort of dumbed-down “evangelical obedience” as if God used to require the work of obedience to be saved but now he makes the work simpler for us to attain. Faith is not a work that merits salvation. Rather, faith works, and when it works properly it functions as God intends faith to operate. So what can we learn here about how faith is supposed to function?
Rooted in election (vv. 4-5a)
Faith, love, and hope are evidence of election. These spiritual qualities are bound together and can only come from God. By calling those in the church “brothers”, Paul shows his warm affection for the believers in Thessalonica. But he is not the only one who loves them. They are first “loved by God”. This is language originally spoken of OT Israel (Dt 32:15; 33:12; Pss 60:5; 108:6; Isa 41:8-10; 44:2; Jer 11:15; 12:7), and now spoken of the Jew-Gentile church. The elect church is the renewed Israel of God.
Paul also sees proof of their election in God’s blessing his missionary labors in Thessalonica. His gospel (which he received by direct revelation from the risen Jesus Christ) came to the Thessalonians not only in spoken word but also with the power of God by the Holy Spirit. Not with the power of classical rhetoric, but with the Spirit’s power to work signs and wonders, change hearts, give new life, and convert sinners to Christ by convincing them the gospel is true. This gospel is undeniably authentic because it came with God’s powerful seal of approval (1 Cor 2:1-5; 4:19-20; cf. Acts 14:3; 15:12; Rom 15:18-19; 2 Cor 12:12).
God’s message comes with power often through ordinary speakers. Have you ever heard a preacher give a talk on something unrelated to the gospel? The power of God is absent. Years ago I gave a speech in high school English on how to hit a baseball. As I nervously twirled the bat through the air over and over and over again, the dizzy teacher fled the room to vomit! About 10 years late a found myself giving a presentation on key Internet hardware components to a completely bored captive audience. It was weird knowing they were paying me to put them to sleep! As a speaker, my historical track record suggest that I’m nothing special. But take the same ordinary speaker and add God’s blessing to his preaching and watch the way lives are powerfully changed. A gospel message and faithful responses powerfully demonstrate proof of God’s choice of the faithful.
Turned from idols (v. 9)
These believers, particularly the Gentiles, were recently converted from idolatry through Paul’s missionary endeavors. The apostolic plea to turn from idols was a common and necessary aspect of repentance preached to Gentiles as opposed to Jews (cf. Acts 14:15; 17:22-31). The gospel calls you not just to abandon your various idols for fatalism or atheism, but for Christianity, because worshiping idols debases you in such a way that you need not merely escape but restoration (Ps 115). The Thessalonians converted from bowing to dead statues (1 Cor 8:4-13; 10:14-22) to worshiping the “living and true God”. They converted from dead worship to living worship, crossing from death to life when they heard the gospel and believed.
Think about how this applies to waiting for Christmas. You can try all you like to ignore, hate, or baptize the ways our culture idolizes Christmas as you wait for the day to come. You might say, “I reject consumerism”, but it’s going to be really hard to not get caught up in the allure of shiny new things. Just like it would have been hard for the Thessalonians to turn from worshiping Zeus or any of the Greek gods and goddesses. It all seemed so real and relevant with Mount Olympus visible from their window, just like the super shopping deals make it seem irresponsible to not empty your wallet and load up on stuff you didn’t know you needed 5 minutes ago. But contrary to custom, culture, and conviction, these Thessalonians decisively turned from idols to the living and true God. How did they did it? They had a “power encounter” with God through the gospel. Having such a power encounter is the only way you will be able to decisively turn from your desires that pull you away from God. How do you get a power encounter with God? By listening to how Jesus is better. By admiring how faith in Christ is a faith that functions properly. By delighting in how turning to Jesus makes life more meaningful, tolerable, intelligible, and joyful. By standing on a faith that doesn’t crumble beneath life’s trials but is unshakable in the face of trials.
What does such a power encounter look like? Back in the eighth century the Germanic tribes in the Frankish Empire suddenly gave up their ancestral idols. Boniface, now called the Apostle of the Germans, preached the gospel to a people who listened carefully to his message, but were afraid to give up their gods for fear of what would happen to them. They were guardians of a sacred tree called Thor’s Oak. It was their cultural idol, bowing down to it as they worshiped Thor. That tree was the obstacle preventing them from accepting the gospel. They had to turn from their idol in order to serve Christ alone, but no one dared to. So do you know what Boniface did? He imitated the prophet Elijah at Mount Carmel. Boniface said he would chop down Thor’s Oak, and if nothing happened to him, then Thor was no god at all and the Lord is the living and true God. And then he felled the tree and their idol came tumbling down. When lightning didn’t strike Boniface, it was received as signs and wonders. The evangelist’s bravery and faith in the power of Christ was a power encounter. It immediately displaced their idol that only moments before had held their hearts so firmly.
The Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers called it the “expulsive power of a new affection.” Here is how what he said about felling idols of the heart. “What cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed—and one taste may be made to give away to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind…The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. It is when admitted into the number of God’s children, through the faith that is in Jesus Christ, that the spirit of adoption is poured upon us—it is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominant affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires, and is the only way in which deliverance is possible.” That is a faith that functions, that works properly and powerfully! [Cited in Tim Keller, Gospel in Life, 46-47]
A Love that is Active
Service to the living and true God (vv. 5b-7, 9)
If you have a faith that functions, love will naturally flow from you in acts of worship and service. The best way to cultivate this kind of love in your life is by imitation. Paul imitated the Lord, and the Thessalonian believers imitated Paul as he imitated the Lord. They were able to trust Paul and his missionary team and thereby copy their Christian service because Paul was a man of conviction and integrity. He practiced what he preached. He lived what he believed. He obeyed what he taught and commanded. Not even their experiencing “much affliction” could hinder these believers from joyfully receiving God’s word. That’s how the Holy Spirit works love into a believer, even when life is rough. Through active service to God, acting out the part of a good disciple, obeying everything Jesus has commanded as a joyful, willing servant of the living and true God. Loving God is an act of service. If love does not labor, it is not love.
Evangelism and testimony (v. 8)
This act of service, this labor of love for God, must eventually manifest itself in love of neighbor. The church in Thessalonica imitated Jesus and Paul in evangelism and testimony as their labor of love. Paul employs a beautiful word-picture here. “Sounded forth” is a rare Greek verb only used this one time in the NT, from which we derive the English word “echo”. The image is an ongoing sound like a trumpet blast emanating from the church that reverberates throughout the hills and valleys of Macedonian, Achaia, and beyond. What is the “sound”? The gospel (“the word of the Lord”) and the news of the Thessalonian’s newfound vibrant faith that produced faith that functions, love that is active, and hope that endures. Paul knew the news of their faith had spread because he had heard the reports as he traveled throughout Greece. He didn’t have to give missionary reports on Thessalonica. The reports had preceded him. This verse holds together both verbal and rumor evangelism. Verbal is evangelism proper. Rumor is evangelistic testimony that authenticates and adorns the verbal gospel.
When we think about spreading the gospel these days we imagine employing every kind of technological medium available. Recorded sermons and talks on CD, MP3, video, and podcast. Articles and books in audio, print, and digital form. Getting the Bible spread far and wide through audio recordings, book format, on the internet, and in an app on your device. These are all excellent media and we should continue employing them for gospel proclamation. And yet sometimes we forget a more simple and powerful way. Here is a question: Which is more moving, more powerful—“You’ve got to read this new Christian book!” or “Did you hear how God got a hold of so-and-so?” Which of these excites you more—“You’ve got to read this amazing sermon by Pastor so-and-so!” or “Did you hear about the church in town that is preaching the gospel, growing like crazy, and their converts are transforming the whole area through their selfless ministry to the whole area?” Here is an example relevant to Christmas season. Which grabs your attention more: “Did you see this photo my family took at the Warrenton manger scene, and with a sweet message of Jesus on the back?” or “I’m so glad those churches in Warrenton do the Live Nativity every year—their commitment and service shows how Christians can lovingly share the gospel in public.” There’s a big difference in the power of these testimonies, isn’t there? “Holy gossip” doesn’t cost anything, yet it is powerful, exciting, spontaneous, and invites imitation. It is not organized or centralized. It takes on a life of its own as the Holy Spirit spreads wildfire joy in the lives of God’s people. Do you see how service to God, sharing God’s word with the world, and holy gossip are acts of love worth laboring for?
A Hope that Endures
Waiting for Christ’s coming (v. 10a)
Paul had to leave town before he had the chance to give the Thessalonian church more teaching on Christ’s second coming. So they had a few nagging questions that were slowing eating away at their Christian hope. By introducing the idea of waiting in hope—particularly waiting for God’s Son Jesus to return from heaven—Paul foreshadows fuller teaching in this letter (1 Thess 2:12, 19-20; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23-24). Waiting involves patience, confidence, expectation, activity, and endurance. These new believers were still hopeful, but they needed encouragement and further instruction on what they were waiting for and how they were supposed to wait. Why? Because the Christian’s hope is incomplete and vulnerable to tribulation without the hope of Christ’s second coming. By reminding the believers that God raised his Son from the dead to defeat the only enemies that can really get us in the end—sin and death (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18; the doctrine of the resurrection)—Paul gives them hope. Since Jesus is not dead but now lives forever, you can hope for his return. Since Jesus is raised in resurrection life, if you are “in the Lord Jesus Christ” and thus “in God the Father”, then you can be confident he will also eventually raise you to resurrection life. If you know that, no delay or disappointment in this life can shatter your hope in Christ’s coming.
For salvation from God’s coming judgment (v. 10b)
Similarly, when Paul reminds the believers of God’s coming wrath, he is preparing them for further teaching on God’s judgment due to us for sin, and salvation in Christ as the way to escape that judgment (1 Thess 5:1-11; cf. Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28; cf. Isa 2:10-22; 13:9). Through the sacrifice of God’s Son on the cross to pay the penalty for sin, believers are able to escape the coming judgment that their sins would otherwise deserve. And through his resurrection, believers are able to escape the sting of death and instead gain eternal life.
The wonderful thing about this hope is that while you wait it pays dividends. It’s like the benefit you get from having an empty stocking with your name on it hanging on the mantle —a hopeful joy knowing that “Santa” loves you and there is no way you’re getting a lump of coal (1 Thess 5:9; Rom 5:9, 21; 6:22; Col 3:6).
Turning, serving, and waiting: one way to summarize the Christian life. In this passage, God’s word unites these to the cardinal Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love—uniting turning from idols to a faith that functions, serving God to a love that is active, and waiting for the Lord to a hope that endures. Do you see how on one hand defeatist attitudes and negative self-perceptions have no place in the church because God loves us, gives us his grace, and has made his choice to love us. And on the other hand, there is no place in the Christian life for triumphalism or pride because believers have faith, love, and hope by God’s grace alone. Instead, the gospel opens to you a better way: the model way for us to believe, to love, and to wait. It’s what every Christian should be and every church should be. And most of all, it is what God made you for and the reason why Jesus died and rose for you. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8-10).
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