Online Text Sermon - Introduction to 1 Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians ch.1 v.1
|Preacher||Rev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness|
|Sermon Title||Introduction to 1 Thessalonians|
|Text||1 Thessalonians ch.1 v.1 |
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"Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 1, 1).
I should like to begin a new series in the mornings, going through this epistle called First Thessalonians. I don't intend to go so slowly that we look at every verse in minute detail. That would be too much, and would take too long. So, I propose we look at rather lengthy sections and try to digest some of the teaching which the Apostle Paul has given to us here.
The letters or epistles of Paul are usually divided into four groups.
The first group consists of the 'early letters', and there are three of these. There is Galatians, and then these two letters to the Thessalonians; they form an early group of the letters of Paul. They were all written about the date AD 50 - that is twenty years after the death and resurrection of our Lord.
The second group of letters by Paul we sometimes call his 'long epistles' - the long ones - and these are Romans and First and Second Corinthians. By the way, Romans is the most important letter ever written in the history of the world, and we should try to get to know Romans by heart, if possible. It's an extremely central and important letter.
Then the third group of Paul's letters is referred to as his 'prison letters', for the obvious reason that they were written by Paul when he was in prison. These are Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and the little letter Philemon, which is always gathered together with Colossians because there are references to persons in these two letters - obviously the same persons - so they must have been connected up.
And the fourth and final grouping of the letters consists of what we call the three 'pastoral letters'. Now a pastor is simply a minister, and the pastoral letters are First and Second Timothy and Titus. And they are called pastoral letters because they deal very much with the subject of the ministry, and the worship of God, and the continuation of the gospel of Christ, and the great emphasis of preaching. Of course other letters, too, handle some of the subjects but the pastoral letters do so in greatest fullness.
I haven't mentioned Hebrews. My personal opinion is that Hebrews was written by Paul; but no one can prove that, and many good and faithful and orthodox writers think that somebody else wrote Hebrews. It doesn't matter; it's just as inspired whoever wrote it, but that is why I haven't mentioned Hebrews just now.
This letter of Paul was written about 50 AD, as I have said, and Paul's method of writing his letters was by dictation. He had a scribe beside him and Paul would simply dictate these wonderful words, the scribe wrote it down, and it was sent as a scroll to whichever church or churches it was designated to - in this case, as you see, the church of the Thessalonians, in verse 1. There is one letter however which the apostle Paul did not dictate. It was written by his own hand, and he tells us this at the last chapter of that letter. It is the Galatian letter, the letter to the Galatians. "You see how large a letter I have written to you," he says, "with my own hand." So normally he had beside him a scribe whom we call an amanuensis, and he took it down by dictation, writing it down and then having it sent to the churches. Galatians is the exception; he wrote Galatians down with his own hand.
Thessalonica is the town where the church was located, and Thessalonica was situated in the northern part of Greece. In a sense, Greece is rather like Great Britain; it had a country in the north and another in the south - well, not quite different countries but they were quite divided communities in many ways - just as we have Scotland in the north as distinct from England and Wales in the south; quite distinct communities in many ways, having their own patterns of thought. So northern Greece was called Macedonia, and southern Greece was called Achaia. You will notice these are both mentioned in verse 7, Macedonia and Achaia, rather like Scotland and England, if you want to bring it into an illustration in Great Britain.
I have to say to you that the most famous and important city in Greece was the city of Athens. It was the great university centre of Greece, and indeed of the world, in early times. Athens was the place where all the brilliant people lived, where they had great orators and speakers and writers. Its architecture was superb and has never been improved upon to this day. So that was the great cultural centre of the Greek world but no letter was ever written by the apostle to anyone in Athens. Athens was a proud city, and they scoffed at the Apostle's message. So other cities of lesser importance like Thessalonica received letters, but Athens received none. God has chosen the foolish things of this world, and very often it is the poor who receive the gospel with readiness and not the rich or the brilliant. It is the same today as ever.
Now in v. 1 of this epistle we have what we call the greeting. Nearly every letter of Paul begins with a greeting. "Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ" (text) - the greeting. Let's look at the names in the greeting: Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus. Paul we know. Let me tell you a little bit about Paul. His Jewish name is Saul but he also, and after his conversion especially, used his Roman name which is Paul - Saul and Paul, they were both his name. The word Saul obviously is a Hebrew name and it means 'asked of God', like the king, King Saul; probably he was named after King Saul, they were both of the Benjamite tribe. But in his work as a missionary to the Roman world and Greek world, he adopted this word Paul. Paul means little, and he was a little man from all that we know of him. We can't be sure if this description that I am going to give you of Paul is accurate, but a very early writer gave this description of Paul, which I convey to you. It was said about him, he was bald headed, bow legged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, full of grace; for at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel. Somebody reckoned that he was only three cubits tall. We can't be absolutely certain of the accuracy of these things, but a cubit was this distance - 18 inches - and three of those distances means, I think, 4ft 6in. If this is anything like accurate he was only about so high, stockily built, and his face so full of grace that at times he looked like a very angel. Anyway, what we do know is that the name Paul means little.
He was an apostle, and I must explain to you what an apostle means. An apostle is somebody who first had to have seen the resurrected Christ; and second, somebody who in his official preaching and writing was infallible, who so received power from God that his words were expressly inspired, reliable, inerrant, totally trustworthy. There were only thirteen apostles. You recall that when Judas Iscariot committed suicide as he did, he had to be replaced - in Acts chapter 1. When he was replaced there were then twelve. In Acts 9, the Lord called this man Paul, as he says himself, "As one born out of due time." Paul's special ministry was not to the Jews but to the Gentiles. He was given to us non-Jewish people, and in God's goodness he was the supreme genius of them all. They were all inspired and all wonderful men and all courageous men and probably all died as martyrs for Christ, but this man was the supreme theologian and teacher; his letters excel the letters of any who ever lived, we may safely say.
That means that there are no such things as apostles in the world today. The charismatic movement - which likes to speak in tongues if it can, and to do healings and other wonderful things like prophesying - they claim that they have their own apostles, but that is a misuse of language. By definition there can be no apostles today because an apostle had to have seen the risen Christ. So there are no such things as apostles today. The apostles were highest order of ministers; after them came the prophets, and the evangelists, and then after that come the pastors and teachers - it's the same thing, pastors and teachers. That is what any of us are today who are in the work of the ministry; we are not apostles, we are not prophets, we are not evangelists in the full sense, we are pastors of congregations, lawfully set aside for the work. But the apostles had plenary inspiration. The popes claim to stand in the same position, but falsely so.
In v. 1 you can see other names as well. Silvanus is the second name. Silvanus is the same person as Silas; he is called Silas in the Acts of the Apostles, and he is called Silvanus when he appears in the letters of Paul. Silvanus is simply the Latin form of Silas which was an Aramaic name. The other one mentioned, as you see, is Timothy. This man Silas, or Silvanus, and Timothy were helpers of the apostle; they were not apostles themselves, but they were helpers of the apostle. I want to notice with you Paul's love for his brethren. He always associates them with himself. They really weren't anything like so brilliant as he was, but he always associates them in love; he always speaks kindly of his fellow helpers, and that is an example to us all. Obviously some Christians are much more gifted than others, they may be much more spiritual than others, much more advanced in sanctification, but we should always speak well of one another, and kindly of one another, and be deferential and affectionate in thinking of one another.
You notice what is said about the church in v. 1 - "The church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ." This is part of the greeting. The church was the congregation. We use the word church in different senses. There is the universal church to which all believers belong. The universal church we think of in two ways In this life, as long we are in this world, the church is said to be the church militant, it is always fighting, it must always have on the full armour of God, but when the church comes to glory after we die, we cease to be in the church militant and we enter into the church triumphant. But this, the 'church' in v. 1, is the second use of the word, not the universal church but the local church, the church in such and such a town. We here are a church in Inverness, not the only one of course, but a church. How do we know when the church is a true church? The answer is, a true church has to have certain marks or evidences and we normally say three, there are three marks of a true church.
The first one is: there has to be the faithful preaching of the word of God. The minister must stick to this Book, he mustn't bring his own ideas, and he must come with the Scriptures in his hand. Of course the skill of a preacher is to open up the true meaning of the Word of God, to give the proper sense of the Word of God and its application, but he mustn't come with his own ideas or theories. It is the Word of God only that he preaches. The second mark of a true church is the proper administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, and the third mark of grace is discipline. There has to be discipline in every true church, and that is to say we don't pry into everybody's private affairs, we don't busybody into every minute mistake that people make - if we did that, we would be guilty of going beyond our duty. But we mean that church members must live a kind of life which is credibly Christian, we must observe the laws of God, the exhortations of God to live a certain kind of life, and if people fail seriously to do that, whether it is I, or somebody else, then they have to be moved out of the membership, and out of their office if they are office bearers, whether it is I or somebody else, it must be without favour of persons, without respect of persons.
That is what we mean by a local church. And this church here is said to be in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ. I think there are two ways in which a true church is said to be in God the Father and in Christ. First of all, living Christians have a spiritual union with the Trinity, with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In that sense they are in Him, they derive spiritual life out of the fullness of God in Christ. That is true of every particular Christian, it's true of every particular congregation, and it's true of the universal church of Christ. But there is another sense of which we are said to be in God, and that is covenantally. The covenant is that eternal promise through the gospel to believers, such that God promises to be our God, and He takes believers as His people. This is not done on some sort of haphazard basis, as you say sometimes, it's not done on an ad hoc basis, on a makeshift basis, it is done on the basis of the eternal promise of God to be faithful to His people always. When He takes us to Himself, it is for eternity. He doesn't take us simply on Monday morning, or for a week or for a fortnight, or even for half a lifetime. When God takes us into union with himself, through Christ, when we believe, it is for all our life and indeed for all eternity itself. So there is the comfort we have. This is true of every church which is a true church. It is true of every believer who is a genuine believer, who loves Christ.
"Now," says Paul in his writing, "Grace unto you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." What is grace? And what is peace? Grace may be defined as supernatural, spiritual energy; it is energy of soul. There is of course such a thing as physical energy, for athletes to run their race or to jump over a certain height. We are not talking about physical energy but inward energy, energy from God, strength from God, to live for God, to live for His glory, to live the holy life. We can't do that of ourselves, of course but grace is sufficient - inward, spiritual, supernatural, divine power. Well, says Paul, "I pray that you may have it." And then peace; now peace is the inward comfort which all genuine believers feel of the love of God towards them, of the forgiveness of sins, of our reconciliation and acceptance with God: grace and peace. And sometimes these apostles say, "May grace and peace be multiplied unto you," so that you may have more and more and more of it as you go on towards the end of your Christian pilgrimage. That's the greeting, or salutation we sometimes call it.
At verses 2 and 3 we come to his prayer, "We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father" (1 Thessalonians 1:2,3). That's clearly a prayer isn't it? He is praying for them. Notice how he puts it, v. 2, "We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers." Did you notice how he is grateful for every Christian? He loves every true believer. Sometimes you go to professing Christian churches and fellowships and they are all in little groups. You know, you have a clique over here - they come from some island or other; a group over here - they come from the mainland; a group over there - they come from some other place; and they all are very close friends to one another, but they never really get to know others in the group. Notice this, "We give thanks to God for you all." It doesn't matter where on earth we come from, if we are called into the church and are genuine believers, we are all welcome, whether we come from Britain or overseas, it doesn't make the slightest difference, we are all sinners saved by grace, if we are saved, and in Christ if we are. And so we should thank God for every true Christian, and welcome their fellowship, and make them feel welcome.
The practical application is that if there are people in the fellowship like this where one person, say, doesn't know another Christian very well, then go out of your way to get to know that person, or those people, so that we are all part of one true, rich, genuine fellowship. If you think there is somebody who seems to be a little lonely or left out, make a point of going out of your way to show them kindness because, Paul says, "We thank God for you all, making mention of you in our prayers." Well I do hope that in our daily prayers we think of one another. It is impossible perhaps to pray for every one every day, that's a bit too much, but whenever we can, lifting up our hearts, we think to ourself, "Ah, this Mr so-and-so, he is not well these days," and up your heart goes in prayer. "And then there is Mrs somebody else and... well she's had a problem," and so you lift them up to God. This is how the apostles were evidently, and all these early Christian leaders. Whenever they thought of them they thanked God for them, and ah! they prayed that the Lord would send grace and peace upon them to help them with their problems and with the difficulties of life. Every one of us has plenty of those, do we not? Well here is what we do with them.
Then he says, "Remembering," (v. 3) "without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father." He is still praying, and he is remembering the sort of people they are. And you notice here three graces of the spirit. He mentions them explicitly, faith and love and hope. We meet these in other places in Scripture, notably in 1 Corinthians 13, "Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." Let's look at them. These are, if you like, the core of the spiritual life. This is the marrow of the Christian's way of living and thinking. He is driven on by these three great things, faith and love and hope. If we don't have these then we are just not Christians in the biblical sense. We may have been baptised as children, we may have some sort of notion of Christian ideas, but if we are not living in the light and under the influence of these three things then, friends, we are really not the Lord's people at all. This is what drives us on and leads us on and helps us on - faith and love and hope, these three.
What is the difference between them? Well, faith means trusting in God now. It's easy to say, but not so easy to do. Here we are, you and I, in 2001; and we all have our own needs and worries and fears. How on earth are we going to get through life? "Ah well," says the worldly man, "I'll tell you, have another drink. Pour out a little more whiskey - that is the way to get through." "No, no", says the Christian, "it isn't - the way to get through is by faith." So here is the Christian's whiskey bottle - if you would allow a rather every day illustration; here is how the Christian gets on, he doesn't pour out anything into a little glass every few hours to keep himself pepped up - no - faith, faith in God. He trusts the Lord - faith!
What is hope? Well, hope is the same thing as faith, only it has respect to tomorrow. Faith trusts in God today, but hope trusts in God for tomorrow. It's faith as to the future, the same thing as faith, only it has respect for the future - hope.
And then love. Well, who can describe what that is? It is that most sweet spirit of heaven by which we desire God and yearn for more of Him in our lives, and whereby we are ready to lay down our lives for God and in service to one another as the people of God. Notice the effect of these three things upon this church. V. 3, "Their work of faith, labour of love, patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." You see you can't have genuine faith and hope and love without it making all the difference to your life - your work of faith. When a person has faith they start to work for God. This is so relevant because in so many churches most of the work is done by half a dozen people, isn't it? In most churches it's half a dozen people who do everything - open the doors and close the doors, and put out this, and do that, and whatever has to be done, half a dozen people are doing it; and the rest, in many churches, are simply coasting along. They really are beneficiaries; of course not everybody can do everything, that is appreciated. But you see when we have the right graces in our life, our spirit is: we want to do something. Can I do something to help? The work of faith, the labour of love and the patience of hope.
This is how it is when churches are fired with zeal for God and everybody's doing something, even if nobody else knows about it, they are doing something. It's because they are all activated by these graces: faith, love, hope, and of course there is bound to be suffering - "patience of hope in the sight of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ." I wonder if you know what that means - "In the sight of God and our Father"? Well I suspect what it means is this: that there are many things the Lord's people do which nobody ever sees, nobody ever hears about. There are some people of course, and they can't preach, and they can't sing, and they can't open a door for all sorts of reasons - perhaps because they are female and it wouldn't be appropriate anyway. But they do other things, like Mary, they do things in secret and our Lord is watching. You see the good works that people do; it is not simply what I know about it or what others know about it, what the elders know. The good works are done in the sight of God and our Father - He is always watching. Things done in secret for His sake are not wasted, though I never hear of them, although the General Assembly never hears of them. If they are done in His sight they will get their reward. They are done in the sight of God and our Father.
So, having given the prayer, the Apostle now comes to a great statement concerning these Christians, at v. 4. Wonderful words at v. 4, listen to them, "Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God" (1 Thessalonians 1, 4). He has passed from the salutation and the prayer, and he is coming to give them doctrine, and teaching, and instruction in the faith. "Knowing," he says, "brethren beloved, your election of God." What is meant by election? It is meant, God choosing His people out of the world to come to a saving knowledge of Himself. There are some very wrong ideas about election. I want to give you two - no doubt there are many more. But that we might understand the meaning of election, let's look at two wrong ideas. One wrong idea is that God chooses those who first of all choose Him. It's rather like this: it's as though God was standing on the edge of eternity looking into the future, because God sees the future obviously. This idea is that God looking into the future sees who is going to trust in Him. There is a man there and a woman there and a child there and, according to this idea, as God looks into the future, He sees those who are going to believe the gospel and He chooses them because God sees that they are going to choose Him one day. That is all wrong. It is the other way round. That is to put the cart before the horse, as we say. The true way to look at election is: we only choose Him because He first chose us. Nobody chooses God whom God did not first choose. That's one wrong thing we must put right.
The second wrong thing to put right is something which is just a plague in certain churches in Scotland today. It is the fruit of false teaching and liberalism and Barthianism. I won't stop on that word just now, but there is a Swiss theologian who died just a few years ago, called Karl Barth and his idea was something like this, I understand. Well this word election means that God has chosen everybody in the world; everybody is elect, according to this idea. But of course they don't know it, so we have to tell them. They are not religious people, we need to tell them that God has chosen them all, and everybody's going to go to heaven, though they don't yet know it, but we must tell them that. When they hear it, no doubt they will be impressed, and they'll join us in the church, I suppose. Now friends, needless to say, that is rubbish! Absolute learned rubbish! The Bible's idea and teaching concerning election is: God is God, He doesn't choose everybody, He chooses some and passes by others. Well, you say, isn't that unfair? Not at all. The fact of the matter is, we are all sinners, we don't deserve that God should choose even one of us.
Let's use an illustration. Supposing in my hand I have a ten pound note, and supposing I give this ten pound note to one of the children in the room. All the other children could complain. They would say, "That's not fair, he's giving it to her but not to the rest, that's being unfair!" No, no it isn't, it's not in the least unfair. I don't owe any of these children a penny. If I want to give a ten pound note to this child or to that, nobody else can complain. You could complain if I owed it to you, but I don't owe it to you, I am giving it as a free gift, and as a free gift I can give it to whomsoever I will. It's like that with election. Friends, we don't deserve heaven, we don't deserve eternal life, we are all wicked! If God gave us what we deserve, we should all be in hell, at once. But God in his mercy has given us Christ in the gospel, and not everybody believes the gospel when they hear it. Mind you, I must go on very quickly to remind those of you who are not Christians, that you are all welcome. As long as there is breath in your body, you are all welcome to come to Christ. If you come God won't drive you away, don't you worry about whether you are elect or not; your duty is to listen to the promise. Look at the promise: "Whosoever will, let him come and take the water of life freely." "You are all welcome," says God. But our experience bears out exactly the truth of what Paul says: that many hear the gospel but not everybody believes. So the apostle tells us it is possible to know that we are elect. Isn't that amazing? It is possible to know, not simply that we are Christians but that God has chosen us eternally: knowing our election.
I hasten on to what must be my final point I think this morning, and that is verse 5 where the apostle tells us how we know that these people were elect. How do we recognise it when men and women are elect by God? How can we recognise those whom God has eternally chosen before the foundation of the world? They don't come with stickers on their lapel; they don't come with a special colour of hair or eyes or complexion; they are not all white men and women; they are not all black men and women; they don't all come from Scotland or England or China or anywhere. How do you know them, these people, how do you recognise them? Well he tells us in verse 5. Notice the word 'for'. 'For' always gives the explanation for what's just been said: "For [or because] our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake" (1 Thessalonians 1, 5). What is he saying here? Well he says that this is the way to know when men and women are chosen eternally by God: it is the way in which they receive the gospel message, or else don't receive it. "Our gospel came not unto you in word only." You know what he is talking about. Here are the apostles and their apostolic helpers, Silas and Timothy, who went to these Thessalonians and they stood in the marketplace or in the synagogue or wherever it was - I read it to you - and preached the word of God to them. What happened? Some people believed; and some people were very annoyed, they created uproar, says Acts 17 where this is recorded - some sort of minor revolution, a disturbance - they absolutely hated what they heard, but some believed.
What determines that some believe and not others? God's eternal election. It's very humbling, and deeply humbling for those who are chosen. My dear friends, how amazing that the Almighty God should even stoop down to notice our existence. He condescends to notice the things done in heaven and upon earth, and yet this great God has chosen some. How do you recognise them? By the way they receive the gospel, not in word only but in power and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance. He means to say, in a word: if we believe the gospel and take it to our heart, there is the proof or our everlasting election from God before the world began. On the other hand, if we just simply receive the Word of God with our heads and not with our hearts, and we go home and we say, "Oh the minister had a rather nice sermon today, he's got such a nice way of putting things, he is such a nice fellow." but you don't believe it in your heart, that's the sign of reprobation, a terrible thought. He doesn't say that they were polite in the way they received it; they said polite things for the minister, "Oh he's ever such an inspiring speaker you know, that lovely illustration... puts it so clearly and all of that." No, no, they believed it! They received it! They repented! They turned to God from idols to serve the living God! Their whole life was revolutionised. They were new men and women in Christ Jesus. That's the fruit.
Well friends we must close. How is it with you? Are you new? Are you changed? Is your life different from what it was or are you simply polite about religion? There's the test of our election. Thank God, it doesn't matter how wicked the world will become, God's elect will always come when they hear the Word of God.
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