The Church of the Thessalonians (3)
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
3. THE MODEL CHURCH
‘Evangelise or fossilise’. How true if not the whole truth. Yet ‘how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard ? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach except they be sent?’, Rom. 10. 14f. Hence the Lord gives His commission, the basic part of which is ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature’, Mark 16. 15. But witnessing to men is not only encumbent on ‘the preachers’, 2 Cor. 5. 20. Living the gospel before men and making capital of every opportunity is the responsibility of every individual child of God; e.g. 1 Pet. 3. 15f Acts 8. 4. The reason for the existence of the assembly in a given locality is that it also might brightly witness for Christ. Those in fellowship are to work out the salvation of the corporate testimony and hold forth the word of life as lights in the world, Phil. 2. 12-16.
The Message of the Gospel
Writing to the church of the Thessalonians Paul refers to the gospel in three different ways. It is primarily ‘the Gospel of God’, 1 Thess. 2. 2, 8, 9. God is its source; the origin of it and the authority for its presentation are alike found in Him. Apart from His love for the world, commended to us whilst yet sinners, apart from the divine favour expressed in the free gift offered through Jesus Christ, there would be no glad news to lighten our benighted state. But it is also ‘the Gospel of Christ’, 3. 2; 2 Thess. 1. 8. In infinite and condescending grace, He came to where we were. In His finished work at the cross and through His resurrection, Christ has laid the righteous basis for meeting our desperate need. It is by His stripes we are healed. Whilst on the one hand He was killed by the Jews., 1 Thess. 2. 15, yet on the other hand He died for us, 5. 10. God raised Him and exalted Him. 1. 10; 4. 14. Hence Christ has laid the unshakeable foundation and is the divinely appointed channel through which the gospel is offered. Christ is the subject of the gospel. It is also ‘our gospel’, 1. 5; 2 Thess. 2. 14. Paul links with himself his colleagues Silvanus and Timotheus, 1 Thess. 1. 1. This was the message which they had appropriated for themselves and with which subsequently they had been entrusted, 2. 4. There was no uncertain sound in their witness. Having believed, so they preached, 2 Cor. 4. 13.
The opening chapter of 1 Thessalonians presents to us the delightful feature of aggressive gospel testimony radiating from the local assembly. We shall notice firstly the entering of the messengers, then the turning of the Thessalonians, and finally the witnessing of the church.
Entering of the Messengers
Paul was left in no doubt as to the election of these ‘brethren beloved of God’, 1. 4. He knew, not by mere intuition but through observation during his stay among them. The preaching ‘was not in word only’. Whilst the facts need to be right, mere statement of truth did not effect their blessing. Neither oratory nor persuasiveness of speech were employed. There was ‘power’ when the gospel was presented. All was stamped with evidence of the Holy Spirit’s working. There was a delightful liberty and confidence in proclaiming the truth. This was to these preachers ‘our gospel’ with which they had been entrusted and for which they were empowered. Little wonder there was ‘much assurance’. Here was proof enough that God was in the work. He was using these earthen vessels to bring into effect His eternal counsels of grace. The blessing of the Thessalonians was traced to its limitless source, 1. 4.
Not only were Paul and his companions aware of this divine intervention, but the Thessalonians themselves knew ‘what manner of men’ the messengers had shown themselves to be in the interests of their hearers. It was simple to detect in the work the character of those who served and the very heart of God, bent only on blessing the Thessalonians.
Turning of the Thessalonians
Such a Spirit-empowered testimony resulted in radical conversions and lives directed to a new Object. There was a definite turning to God. Men and women previously serving gods, which see not neither hear, were turned about-face, 1.9. Life was now in the right direction; it was Godward. The generalization here, in referring to the work among idolaters only, needs to be tempered by the complementary facts of Acts 17. There were also Jews and proselytes brought to Christ as a result of the three Sabbaths’ ministry in the synagogue. However, there was a greater work wrought subsequent to this among the people at large. The majority of those in fellowship were converts from heathenism as we gather from this and other references in the two Epistles. Self-righteousness and religious smugness so often miss the day of visitation, whilst publicans, sinners and Gentile idolaters crowd into the kingdom. So the work of faith had begun.
Through faith in a living God they were quickened, 1. 10, and this led to activity. Expression was given to the divine life which was the very sphere of their corporate existence, 1. 1. Untiringly they served the living God. There was faith, love and hope, the triad of Christian graces; cf. 5. 8; 1 Cor. 13. 13; Col. 1. 4f. These were the springs of their work, labour and endurance; cf. Rev. 2. 2.
Faith is not only associated with their spiritual beginnings, 1 Thess. 1. 3, 8. Whilst initially the soul responds to the word of God by faith, this is but the entrance upon the life of faith. For the individual, faith without works is dead. Here the assembly, dependent on God, worked for His glory. The love of God was begotten by His love to them, 1 John 4.19, and love was prepared to labour. There is little pleasing to the comfort and ease-loving flesh in that word labour. Strength was spent through physical exertion and toil, but ‘little do they love who evade all labour’. There was hope of the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ also which encouraged them to endure the difficulties of the way. Christian manliness was developed. Conversely, their hope would have been strengthened by this, Rom. 5. 4. Whilst great space is given to living by faith in Hebrews 11, and to the characteristics of love in 1 Corinthians 13, it is in the Thessalonian Epistles that hope is treated with fulness and variety. This., then, is the culmination of the graces here whilst to the Corinthians it is shown that ‘the greatest of these is love’.
These early preachers were far from being satisfied with the mere acceptance of their message. They looked for evidence of the reality of conversion and where they found it, gave God thanks praying for still further development. The servants were delighted with the oneness and wholeness of what was being done for God. It was not the works, labours and endurance of the many which were noticed so much as the corporate work, labour and endurance of the church of the Thessalonians. The assembly is neither the sphere for display, nor for individuality, but for the manifestation of our ‘togetherness’ in the work of God.
Imitators then Examples
What a tremendous standard of faithfulness is suggested by the phrase ‘ye became imitators of us, and of the Lord’, 1 Thess. 1. 6 R.V. The conduct of the servants was conformed to the life of the Lord. It is only in this sense that we can be encouraged to follow the example of men. There are occasions when we are exhorted persistently to follow the example given; e.g. 1 Cor. 4. 16; 11. 1; Eph. 5. 1. Here the reference is to that momentous occasion when they once for all turned to God and the manner of life that pleases Him, cf. 1 Thess. 2. 14. The right pathway stretches before those who enter the strait gate, hence the life of faith develops out of their response to the word, 1. 6. Of course, Jesus stands alone in His example, cf. Heb. 12. if, and as the Lord He demands that we should follow Him. Nonetheless, where there is Christlikeness in character and behaviour we should seek God’s help to imitate such evidence of faith; cf. 2 Thess. 3. 7, 9; Heb. 13. 7.
The upshot of this was that those who turned to God as individuals and became imitators of the apostles, became an example themselves, 1 Thess. 1. 7 R.V. Here was a pattern, a model church. The context limits the sense in which this was applicable. There were deficiencies in their faith, 3. 10, warnings were necessary; e.g. 4. 1-8. Yet in connection with sounding forth the word of the Lord, they were indeed exemplary, 1. 8; cf. 2 Thess. 3. 1. Not that there was simply enthusiasm and effort in the gospel, as good as this is. Paul and all who heard detected in their energetic activities in the gospel evidence of a new dependence and direction in their livings ‘their faith to Godward’, was spread abroad, 1. 8. Their sounding forth resulted in their own faith being ‘spread abroad’. And no wonder. Here we read of a local church whose witness to Christ had run over the wall. Not only did the people of Thessalonica hear the message, but their bounds expanded to envelop the country in which they were set, Macedonia, and then to the neighbouring country of Achaia. Together these two form the major part of modern Greece. As though this were not enough to shame most of us Paul goes on to say that in every place (that is ‘widely’, ‘generally’) their faith was so well known that he had no need to say anything.
Here was a local church that was a witness to the whole world! This is no mere hyperbole but a challenge to our restricted visions. The church planted in a given locality is primarily responsible to sound forth with clear and challenging notes as of a herald’s trumpet the word of the Lord. But what of the countryside around and the bordering counties? Are we so preoccupied and contented inside the church or do we have our hands so full outside the assembly’s work that our district is hardly aware of the gospel and our existence? What of the villages and hamlets of our beloved land, the vast areas where little or no proclaiming of Christ is heard? Not that the challenge of so-called Christian Britain should be the end of our exercise. There are ‘the regions beyond’. Fields white and ready to harvest await the arrival of the reapers. Is the assembly where you gather alive to its responsibilities to a perishing world ? Have we no vision of men crying ‘come over and help us’? At Thessalonica, a busy centre and sea port, the brethren exploited every avenue that by all means they might gain some. There were the places of public concourse, the market place and the ships’ wharves. This assembly was determined to scatter the seed on the land and cast bread on the waters leaving the rest to God.
God honoured their faith and its work, their love and its labour. Men and women from different parts reported to Paul and his companions the effectiveness of their work among the Thessalonians. Many had heard the gospel and accepted it through this assembly’s work. Here, then, was a special cause for thanksgiving.
The Macedonian churches seem to have been specially exercised in the gospel. At Philippi there were those who had laboured with Paul in the gospel, Phil. 4. 3; cf. 2. 22. He rejoiced in their fellowship in the furtherance of the gospel, 1. 5. He exhorted them to strive together for the faith of the gospel, 1. 27; see also 1. 7, 12, 17, 27; 4. 15. What a blessing to Macedonia these two assemblies were! Is there not a desperate need of a unity of purpose and a practical recognition of the local church as the basic unit in furthering the Lord’s work? This is no parochial outlook. ‘Evangelism must be centred in the local church which should be a fount of life and blessing to the area in which God has placed it’. If all the talents and resources of the saints were ploughed into the great variety and work and labour of the assembly, we would see the ever widening influence spread through town, countryside and to the uttermost part of the world.
To be followed by ‘Tribulation worketh patience’.