Our New Series – A Church in Good Shape
Over the Autumn we are going to be looking at the letter of 1 Thessalonians in our morning services. The best thing to do would be to spend some time reading and digesting the letter in advance, it is a short letter – only five chapters. In addition to that, the following paragraphs are intended to set the scene in preparation for our new series.
We need to begin by noting that 1 Thessalonians is a surprising letter! In these chapters we encounter a church that is in good shape. And yet, truth be told, the city did not appear to be the most promising place for a church plant to succeed. Paul and Silas had planted the church in the Greek city as part of their missionary journey that we read of in Acts 17. There are various reasons why the young church was facing an uphill battle. Firstly, Paul describes the population of the city as being devoted to idols (1.9). Secondly, the city erupted into a riot in response to the preaching of Paul (Acts 17.5). Finally, things got so bad that Paul and Silas had to flee the city under the cover of darkness (Acts 17.10). If you put these factors together: a background of idolatry, a violent city and a young church that was bereft of leadership. It seems that Thessalonica was an unlikely place for the gospel to flourish. Indeed, because of this situation, even Paul himself was fearful (3.6) for the future of the young church.
However, given these circumstances, perhaps to our surprise the letter to the Thessalonians is all about good news! After Paul was chased out of town, he is keen to hear how the young church is getting on. As a result, he sends Timothy back to the city so he can bring word back to Paul. When Timothy returns, to the pleasant surprise of Paul, he brings ‘good news’ (3.6) about the believers in Thessalonica. This is, therefore, a letter about ‘A Church in Good Shape’. They were an example (1.8) to be followed in their own day and their example still speaks to us in the present. Here are a three headings to help us get a hold of the big picture of 1 Thessalonians.
Firstly, let’s think a little of the context of the letter. The letters of the New Testament, for the most part, are written into the situations that we read of in the book of Acts. This is certainly the case for the church in Thessalonica. In Acts 17, we read of Paul and Silas bringing the news of Jesus to the city which turned out to be both positive and provocative! On the one hand, there were many Jews and Greeks who came to believe in Jesus through the witness of Paul. However, on the other hand, there were others that stirred up a mob and threw the city into an uproar. As a result, Paul and Silas had to flee Thessalonica under the cover of darkness (Acts 17.10). Since Paul was forced to leave, we read that he sends Timothy back (3.2) so that he can get a report on how the young church is progressing. This report from Timothy is central to the structure and the purpose of the letter.
Secondly, a brief sketch of the content of the letter. Paul is addressing a church that for the most part is getting it right; because of this, the tone of the letter is buoyant and upbeat. Paul is pleased to have received the ‘good news’ from Timothy about the progress of the church. So, he writes to them to commend them for their faith and endurance and urges them to keep at it. The letter breaks down into three main sections with an emphasis on the past, the present and the future.
Chapters 1&2 – Looking Back: Remember The Way Things Were!
In the first two chapters, Paul looks back to the time that he spent in Thessalonica. He reminds the church of the hostility in which they received the gospel (1.6) and he commends them for their faithful endurance and the example that has sounded forth from them. He also reminds them about his pattern of life that he lived out before them and their personal knowledge of his own example to them.
Chapter 3 – A Present Report: Good News from the Frontline!
The third chapter is the pivotal chapter in the letter. Having reminded the church of how they have journeyed together to this point, Paul now brings the situation into the present with the news of Timothy’s report reaching him. He is pleased to hear that they are standing fast in the Lord, and in the remainder of the letter Paul gives them instruction to help them persevere as they look towards the future.
Chapter 4&5 – Looking Ahead: Keep Doing What You Are Doing!
These final chapters concern the future of the church in Thessalonica. In the closing chapters, Paul appears to be addressing specific questions and concerns that the church may have wanted to ask Paul. We see this structure mark the closing chapters of the letter. For instance, Paul appears to be answering concerns about: i) lives that please God (4.1), ii) brotherly love (4.9) iii) those who have died in Christ (4.13) and (iv) living in light of the Lord’s return. The refrain that echoes through this section is to ‘keep doing what you are doing’ which indicates this is a church heading in the right direction.
Therefore, the thrust of the letter can be captured in the above three divisions. Paul, firstly, reminds the church of the past (chapters 1-2), he is then thankful for good news concerning them in the present (chapter 3), and he closes by looking to the future, and urges them to keep on doing what they are doing (chapters 4-5).
Thirdly, the Thessalonians had experienced a complete transformation in their lives, as Paul reminds them: ‘they turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1.9). More than that, they had kept it up, even in the face of ‘much affliction’(1.6); because of this Paul holds them up as an example to all the believers across Greece. Therefore, as we study a letter which is marked by lasting change, we need to close by considering what change should this letter have upon our lives as believers. A couple of broad applications are perhaps helpful:
Be Encouraged! – The first reaction we should have is to be encouraged and keep on telling people about Jesus! This is a positive letter and a story about how the gospel will flourish, even in difficult circumstances. Are we sometimes pessimistic about the cause of the gospel? Do we doubt that people will trust in Jesus? The good report that reaches Paul from Thessalonica is a powerful reminder that Jesus is at work and he will do all that he pleases! We need to be prepared to be surprised; even an idolatrous, riotous city is a good place for the gospel to take root! Be encouraged – Jesus will draw people to himself!
Be An Example! – This letter also highlights the importance of our personal example. Are our lives -personally and corporately – worthy of imitation? Paul held out the example of the Thessalonians to all the churches in Greece. We must take seriously the impact of our own personal example to those around us. Are we living wholesome lives that aim to please God and that edify other believers? If we aspire to do so, then Paul urges us to do so more and more!
Be Engaged! – The Thessalonian church were in it together! Throughout the letter they share a common experience. They turned to God from idols – together! They received the word in much affliction – together! The word of God was at work in them – together! And in light of that Paul urges them to fulfil the responsibility that they have to one another. They were to: love one another (4.9), encourage one another (4.18), and to keep building one another up (5.11). How seriously do we take the responsibilities that we have to each other?
Be Marked By Endurance! – In the final chapters, Paul appeals to the church to keep enduring. He tells them repeatedly to keep on doing what they have been doing (4.1, 4.9 & 5.11). The motivation that he holds out to them for living faithful lives is the return of the Lord Jesus (3.12, 4.16 & 5.2). It is worth highlighting, the return of the Lord is never merely a point of intellectual understanding, it is always intended to have a positive impact upon our manner of living. Simply put, the Thessalonians were on the right lines. They needed to hear the repeated exhortation: ‘keep doing what you are doing!’ Will we be marked by endurance like they were?
Let’s pray, therefore, that these will be fruitful studies through October and November and that the word of God will be at work in us (2.13) like it was in the church in Thessalonica.