There are many things churches can be known for today: age-specific programs, small groups, excellent music, community service, and much more. While these things can be helpful, they’re not what a church should ultimately be known for. For that, we need to turn to Scripture. And a good place to start is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. In this post we will only look at Paul’s opening greeting in 1 Thess 1:2-10. There we find a church praised by Paul, and known throughout all of Greece, for being messengers and models of the gospel.
The Thessalonians’ Faith, Love, and Hope
Paul begins by thanking God for Thessalonians. Specifically, he mentions their works that resulted from their faith, their labor prompted by love, and their steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 1:3). These three qualities of faith, hope, and love are common in Paul’s writing because they defined the early Christians (Rom. 5:2–5; 1 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 5:5–6; Col. 1:4–5; Heb. 6:10–12; 10:22–24; 1 Pet. 1:21–22). Michael Martin writes, “Visible Christian deeds and perseverance in spite of difficulty give witness to a genuine and enduring faith. Thus Paul gave thanks for a faith that was shown to be real by the evidence visible in the lives of the believers” (1, 2 Thessalonians, New American Commentary, 56).
If the Thessalonians are giving visible evidence of faith, why does Paul direct his praise to God and not the readers? Verse 4 explains it: “for we know brothers, loved by God, that he has chosen you” (cf. 2 Thess 2:13). Paul thanks God because, ultimately, it is God who decisively caused them to bear gospel fruit (cf. Ezek 36:27). God gets all the glory because he loved and chose the Thessalonians so that they would have faith, love, and hope (Eph 1:3-6; 1 Peter 1:3-5).
The Good News Preached and Received
In verses 5-6 Paul explains more clearly how he knows the Thessalonians are elect. Not only did the gospel come to them in word but “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:5). In one sense, this means that Paul preached in a powerful way, with signs and wonders, the assistance of the Spirit, and with great boldness and conviction. However, those things alone weren’t sufficient proof that the Thessalonians were truly born again and called by God. The gospel simply preached in power and conviction is no proof that the hearers will respond in faith. Stephen was filled with the Spirit, did signs and wonders, preached with conviction, and his hearers killed him (cf. Acts 6-7).
The proof of the Thessalonians’ election wasn’t only in how the message was preached but how it was received. Paul’s preaching bore fruit in the lives of the Thessalonians. Bruce writes in his commentary that the deep conviction refers to “a deep inward persuasion of the truth of the gospel, a token of the Holy Spirit’s work in their hearts, more impressive and more lasting than the persuasion produced by spectacular or miraculous signs” (1 and 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary, 14). It was the Holy Spirit that called, convicted, enlightened, transformed, and assured the Thessalonians.
The Gospel Sown in Good Thessalonian Soil
In verse 6 Paul goes on to say they became imitators of the apostles. How? By receiving the word “in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6). This verse is key, because there are many people who initially respond to the gospel with happiness and joy, but aren’t truly regenerated. Remember Jesus’ parable of the soil?
these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away (Mark 4:16-17).
Simply responding to the gospel with joy doesn’t prove saving faith. However, joy that persists in the heart of someone, when they are being afflicted, does. The election of the Thessalonians was made known because they joyfully received the gospel in trials and suffering. The gospel came to them in power and the Holy Spirit changed their lives, resulting in the faith, hope, and love of verse 1:3!
The Thessalonians’ Example and Witness
As a result of their reception of the gospel and joy in affliction they became examples to other believers in Macedonia and Achaia (1 Thess 1:7-8). These were two Roman provinces that stretched for hundreds of miles, covering all of Greece, and included the churches at Philippi, Berea, and Corinth. But notice how they were an example to these other believers. Paul explains that the Thessalonians were messengers and models of the gospel; they lived exemplary lives while also providing verbal testimony of the good news of salvation. In fact, their witness was so effective that Paul and his companions “need not say anything” (1 Thess 1:8)! They didn’t sit on the sidelines while Paul and other preachers did the heavy lifting; they actually helped Paul in his missionary efforts.
In verses 9 and 10 we learn what the other believers heard about the Thessalonians:
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 (1 Thess 1:9-10).
What a beautiful and concise description of the Christian life: turning to God from idols (faith), serving God (love), and waiting for our blessed hope of resurrection life and deliverance from wrath (hope). This was the message that the Thessalonians were sharing and the good news that enabled them to endure suffering with joy, with works of faith and labors of love.
The Thessalonians provide us with a picture of what gospel fruit looks like in a local church and what churches today should ultimately known for. Paul doesn’t praise them for their Sunday worship “experiences”, their choir and worship team, their community clean-up efforts, or their programs for every niche market imaginable (as helpful as those things might be!). Instead, we see Christians serving one another in love, enduring suffering and affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit, and also boldly preaching the life-changing gospel with words.
So go on and have excellent music, friendly greeters, creative stage designs, outreaches, and small groups. Do them well and keep them gospel-centered. But above all, let’s be known as churches who receive the gospel with joy and persevere through affliction. Let’s boldly preach the gospel (using words always), performing works of faith and labors of love for other believers.
Let’s be known as messengers and models of the gospel.
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY state Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have one son named Oliver Paul and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and supporting Bayern Munich. You can follow him on Twitter @mitchbedzyk