Introduction to 1 Thessalonians 1 Thessalonians 1:1 Introduction I want to begin this morning by asking you to reflect with me on the place where you live – not your house or your neighborhood, but our culture – what life is like in a metro area of the United States. Diversity: Ethnic and Religious First of all, we can say that as a whole, the region is diverse. Not only are there African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos in our region, but there are also first generation immigrants from other countries like Laos, Cambodia, Russia, and Somalia. With this ethnic diversity comes a variety of religious perspectives. There are a variety of types of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Eastern Orthodox, and all kinds of evangelicals. There are Jewish people. And there are Muslims…to name a few. Religion and Identity And for many, these religions do not in the first place represent theological commitments as much as they do traditional ones. “I’m a Lutheran because my father was a Lutheran and his father was a Lutheran and his father was a Lutheran.” To say, for example, that you are Latino is almost synonymous with saying that you are a Roman Catholic. Roman Catholicism is so much a part of the culture that it is nearly impossible to separate them from one another. Religion and Politics In addition, these religious perspectives have been increasingly tied to political ideology. Typically, the mainline Protestant denominations and Jewish people have related more to the Democratic Party, while the conservative, evangelical denominations along with many Roman Catholics have been aligned with the Republican Party. In some Christian circles, you commitment to the faith is even measured by how closely you support the policies of a particular party. Idolatry To this we would add that our culture presents for us all kinds of “gods” to command our devotion. There is plenty of idolatry to be found. And by idolatry, I don’t mean that there are lots of statues of deities that are worshipped by individuals in our society, but that there are things that we order our lives around, things we live for, that in large measure determine the decisions we make. These are things that for many people in the Metro take the place of religious practice – going to church and/or being part of a religious community. These include the idol of our civility and niceness; the idol of our money; the idols of our fitness and beauty; the idols of pleasure, amusement, entertainment, and leisure; the idols of education, knowledge, and expertise; the idol of family, and many more. Sexual Mores In a metro area, and now because of the internet, almost everywhere, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to engage in sexual immorality – strip clubs and night clubs, chat rooms and hotlines, prostitutes and massage parlors promise to titillate your senses or connect you with someone for sex. Economy and Class Distinctions Another thing we can say about the metro area is that it is characterized by both the affluent and the poor. Opportunities for business and commerce abound. And the Twin Cities is home to perhaps the widest array of different kinds of businesses – from manufacturing to marketing, from agriculture to engineering…and many more. And while many people are experiencing great financial prosperity there are simultaneously those, particularly in Minneapolis and St Paul, who are struggling just to make ends meet. They have become impoverished because they have been marginalized and oppressed by others (they’ve been sinned against) and because they have not been industrious (they have sinned). Safety And we experience all this in the safety and unparalleled peace that comes with living in the United States. Now it doesn’t take much imagination to see the world where you live. This is what life is like for us here in the Twin Cities Metro. And here’s the exciting thing: if you can identify with the place where you live, you can identify with the ancient city of Thessalonica, the city the Apostle Paul and his colleagues visited in the late 40s ad to establish a Christian community there. The Thessalonian “Metro” Turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Thess 1:1 and read the first verse with me. <Read the text> Paul and his partners in ministry, Silvanus (also known as Silas) and Timothy were used by God to establish a church, a Christian community in the place called Thessalonica. And life for the Thessalonians was much like our own; it was much like life in the metro area of the United States in the 21st century. It has all the characteristics we’ve mentioned. It was a metro area. A road called the Via Egnatia, which was the main east-west land route connecting the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. If you wanted to move between these two bodies of water, which you would have had to do in order to carry out business and move around in the Roman Empire, you would have had to have passed through Thessalonica. Diversity: Ethnic and Religious (including idolatry) And because it was a metro area, it was very cosmopolitan, very diverse, with diverse people and diverse religions, including many Jews. Now although Thessalonica contained a significant population of Jews, Judaism was not the dominant religion. Instead, what we might call paganism held the day. Most people worshipped idols – the state religion was the Imperial Cult, which was not without competitors. It also had a variety of other gods, including Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and a god called Cabrius. Religion and Identity The last god I mentioned, Cabrius, was becoming the chief object of the city’s worship, identifying worship of this god with what it meant to be a Thessalonian. Like attacking a Latino’s Roman Catholicism would be tantamount to an attack on Latino identity, attacking Cabrius in the first century was to attack Thessalonian identity as well. Religion and Politics Now when your religion is tied up with what it means to belong to your particular society, your religion will also have major implications for your politics, which it did. In Thessalonica, as throughout the entire ancient world, there was no such thing as a religious statement that didn’t have political ramifications, and vice versa. In many ways your religion was your political affiliation. Religion and politics could not be separated. So idolatry was everywhere – in penetrated every corner of the Thessalonians’ world, including their bedrooms, so to speak. Sexual Mores The reason I can say this is that one of the behaviors associated with pagan idolatry was sexual immorality. Many of the practices of the religions of the ancient world included sexual immorality, whether it was sex with the god’s temple prostitutes or the disavowal of physical life that made everything you do with your body absolutely permissible. Sexual immorality was part of Thessalonica’s culture. Economy and Class Distinctions Thessalonica was made up of both cultural elites, the wealthy – merchants and landowners, as well as the poorest of the poor. Safety Finally, the safety enjoyed by cities in the Roman Empire was perhaps second only to the safety enjoyed by people living in the United States. The Pax Romana, the Roman Peace meant stability (and prosperity) for everyone within its sway. So if you can envision what life is like here in the Twin Cities Metro, you can certainly imagine what life was like in Thessalonica. It was a world in many ways like our own. And it was in this world that the Apostle Paul and his companions introduced the message of the gospel, which is neatly summarized here in v 1. The Gospel Comes to Thessalonica Notice that it says that the church of the Thessalonians is in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. That word in is quite significant because it is Paul’s way throughout his writings of expressing what it means to be a Christian, what it means to belong to the church. The church exists only by its relationship, intimate relationship with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When we believe the message of the gospel – the good news of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ – when we turn from our sins and our self-sufficiency and trust in Jesus alone to rescue us from God’s punishment for our sins, we enter into a relationship with the one-and-only God of deep intimacy. It is a relationship that defines who we are, understood as a union (like the marriage union) between us and the true God. When we believe the gospel, we are brought into union with Christ such that his death on the cross for our sin was simultaneously a kind of death of our own. When Jesus died to sin, so did we. But our union with Jesus is more than just union in his death; it is also union in his resurrection such that when Jesus was raised from the dead, we also were raised from the dead to live a transformed life. But the union we have is not with Jesus alone. It is also with the Father. When we believe the gospel we instantaneously become a child of God by adoption. And even though every human being is in a sense a child of God (he’s our creator), not everyone is a child of God in the sense of being adopted into the Christian family. For those who are adopted into the family, God becomes our Father more than simply being our creator; he becomes our “Daddy.” The introductory verse to 2 Thessalonians makes this point even more explicitly. There he calls it “the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 1:1). He’s not simply the Father, but our Father. Now the result of this new relationship is found at the end of v 1. Read the verse again with me. <Read the text> It says, Grace to you and peace. The very last word, peace, is loaded with meaning. Peace in a comprehensive way describes our reconciliation with God and the consequent blessings given to us through the gospel. It is what Paul talks about in Rom 5:1: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” So Paul is able to sum up neatly in this verse what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is a person who has had his sin-debt paid for once-and-for-all by Jesus’ death, a person who has been given a new start to live life as God intended by Jesus’ resurrection, who has confidence that this relationship will never be taken away because he or she has become a permanent addition to God’s family. In a word, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. But why is it that we would enjoy this peace? Is it that God looked down on people like the Thessalonians (and us) and thought, “Wow! Those are some really great people; they deserve to be reconciled to me. I really ought to do something for them”? The Centrality of Grace If you’ve been a Christian even for a little while, you’ll know that the answer to this question is a categorical no. But regrettably, even though we know that our peace with God has nothing to do with anything good in us, any attitude or activity that somehow disposed us toward reconciliation with God – even though we know this, all too often we forget it. That is why we need to be reminded of what is perhaps the most important word in all of v 1. It’s the word grace. The relationship of intimacy we enjoy with the true God through Jesus Christ is solely the product of kindness that we didn’t deserve, that we weren’t owed, that God wasn’t at all obligated to give us. This is because we are guilty in his courtroom, we have not lived up to the standard that he has given us, that standard of right and wrong that lies within all our consciences. We have all lied and cheated and stolen and lusted – we’ve all failed to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; we’ve all failed to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because God is just, he is not obligated to suspend sentences, but to carry them out. But because of what Jesus has done – because of his death and resurrection, because Jesus has taken and overcome our death sentence for us, in place of us, God can justly show his mercy to people who ought to be punished. That’s God’s grace. Grace is undeserved and unearned love and mercy and favor that we receive from God’s hand. So the fact that anyone in this room is a Christian is a product of God’s sheer generosity, and nothing more. And this is what makes Christianity so compelling. Since being reconciled to God and being rescued from his judgment is totally undeserved, everyone is eligible – no matter how bad you’ve been. Now matter how much your life has been characterized by wicked, filthy, evil behavior, or by pompous self-righteousness and hypocrisy you can be reconciled from God and rescued from his judgment simply by putting all your eggs in the basket of the gospel. Now since Christianity is all of grace, people who are Christians already (like the Thessalonians) are reminded by this introduction that since being a Christian is totally undeserved, we don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love and mercy and favor at any time in the Christian life. Continuing as a Christian isn’t based any more on performance than becoming a Christian was. It’s all of grace. Now then, what happens when a people come to grips with this message, with this good news from God is that their entire world is turned upside down. This is because God’s grace is an invader – it is invasive grace, and it changes everything. Invasive, Transforming Grace Here in 1 Thessalonians we see some of the profound changes that God works in us (and through us) by the gospel. First, the gospel has the power to overthrow powerful idolatries. The idols that the gospel breaks are legion – almost as many as there are people. The idols of Thessalonica were made of wood and metal. They were the gods who received the people’s fear and devotion, that determined the culture’s identity. But they could not survive the onslaught of the gospel cf. 1:9-10. <Read the text> The gospel does this to every person who comes to saving faith – they turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God – the God who is real and alive and active in the world. It can even break the idols of our world – the idols of the suburbs: the idol of our religiousness and niceness; the idol of our leisure; the idol of our money; the idol of our fitness and beauty; the idol of pleasure, amusement, and entertainment; the idol of education, knowledge, and expertise; the idol of political power. The gospel smashes these idols, shows us their utter bankruptcy, and makes obvious what was once obscure – turning to the living and true God. Second, the gospel creates a new community. We see this back in v 1. Paul writes this letter (with the help of his companions) to the church in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The first thing that the gospel does is that it creates a new community – a gospel community. The church is not a building – a building is the place where the church assembles. Through the gospel we become the people of God, a new community in which old worldly distinctions no longer separate us from one another. We are open and honest, transparent with our weaknesses and sins. Seeking one another out and serving one another in our weaknesses. The gospel makes us hospitable, forthright, and helpful. The gospel decimates pride and engenders humility so that we are free to serve one another through love. We see this in the life of the Thessalonians not only by this one word in 1:1, but elsewhere in the book cf. 4:9-10a; 5:12-21. <Read the texts> The gospel creates a new community that embodies the gospel of Jesus Christ in how it relates to one another. But not only that, it also creates a community that embodies and proclaims the gospel as it relates to the world. So third, the gospel makes us a people who proclaim a message and fulfill a mission. And we receive this not simply through training by their leaders in the finer points of Christianity, but the truth is that by the Holy Spirit the gospel loosens our tongues and causes us to speak to others about the amazing work of liberation he has worked in our lives. Being transformed by the gospel makes us a people who tell others about the transformation of the gospel – the transformation that only the gospel can bring. It prompts us to share with others the liberation of the gospel – the freedom that only the gospel can bring. It prompts us to share with others the hope of the gospel – the hope that only the gospel can bring. And it prompts us to share with others this transformation, hope, and freedom with boldness. The amazing thing about the Thessalonians is that they were not Christians very long before Paul and his companions had to leave and wrote this letter, perhaps as little as three to six months old. Although they were young believers, they had already garnered a reputation among other churches as those who were sharing with others the message of the gospel with great effectiveness and power cf. 1:6-10. <Read the text> But the gospel doesn’t simply propel us as a people into the world to proclaim God’s message, but also to embody that message – to live out the implications of that message in the world. Fourth, then, the gospel transforms the social institutions of which we’re a part. Through the gospel, God makes us a community that participates in cultural renewal. The gospel teaches us that our service to God cannot be reduced to what we do in the context of local church life – teach Sunday school, lead a small group, serve on a committee – the gospel teaches us instead that all our work matters to God. Turn over to 4:10b-12. <Read the text> When the gospel clears out religiosity, which makes religion and service in the church an idol by which we may sinfully compare ourselves with people who don’t “put God first,” then so-called “secular” work is seen for what it is – as valuable and God-honoring as service in the local church. The gospel also shapes the way we work. It affects the motives, manner, and methods of our work. The gospel enables Christians to work in their vocations with excellence, diligence, integrity, and Christian distinctiveness. We could address many more ways in which the gospel transforms every nook and cranny of human existence. God’s grace is not passive – it is a powerful force for change in the world. It is God’s invading grace and it changes absolutely everything. Conclusion And I so desperately want you to see this. Our vision for what God is doing through the gospel of his son is in my estimation far too reductionistic. We have reduced the gospel to the forgiveness of sins rather than the renewal and transformation of every aspect of the universe. Now you might say that you know that that is going to happen at the end of the world – there will be a new heavens and a new earth. But what we know from the rest of the New Testament is that that future cosmic renewal is the consummation of what has already begun by the work of Jesus Christ. The renewal and transformation of absolutely everything has already started and the chief instrument that he’s using in the world to bring about that change is the church, the Christian community. Or better, the chief instruments that he’s using to bring about that change are Christian communities just like ours. That means that God is interested in seeing the Twin Cities Metro transformed by the gospel – and if it had the capacity to begin to transform Thessalonica by the gospel, then it has the capacity to do identical work with Minnetonka, Eden Prairie, Chaska, Edina, and all the cities of the Metro. My number one prayer for our study of 1 Thessalonians is that you would catch God’s vision for the gospel transformation of the place where we live. Related to that, since God is using our community as the instrument through which he will bring about gospel renewal of the Metro, I am praying that we would be diligent to function in our respective roles both in terms of how we relate inside the Christian community and how we relate to the world in which we live. Finally, the church at Thessalonica was a healthy, vibrant church – a church that was evidencing the fruit of gospel transformation. Throughout this letter Paul commends the Thessalonians for their growth in grace. Although it is Paul’s usual practice to tell the churches what it is about them he’s been expressing thanks to God once at the beginning of the epistle, not only does Paul do this at the beginning of the letter (in 1:2ff.), but again in 2:13, and again in 3:9. Paul also tells them very straightforwardly how well they are doing – how much gospel transformation they are evidencing: Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more….Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more” (4:1, 9-10). This is how I see Redeemer Bible Church. We are evidencing the fruit of gospel transformation – your pastors report on the taste of your fruit at the praise time of every single shepherding meeting. So my third and final prayer for our study of 1 Thessalonians is that although we have been making wonderful progress as a church – that by catching a vision for God using us as his instruments for the transformation of the Twin Cities – that we would excel still more for the cause of Christ and the glory of his gospel. Amen.