The Beginning of Being a Christian
1 Thessalonians 1
Thessalonica was the principal city of Macedonia; it was the capital and largest city of the Roman province. Acts 16:6-10 tells us how, when Paul purposed to go into Asia, the Holy Spirit stopped him. Having seen a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading for help, Paul traveled from Troas to Samothrace to Neapolis and then to Philippi. Paul and Silas began their ministry in Macedonia in the city of Philippi and enjoyed success. Because of their success, the Philippian officials put Paul and Silas in prison. God miraculously saved them from prison, converting the Philippian jailor and his family in the process. From Philippi, Paul and Silas traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, finally stopping in Thessalonica. Acts 17:1-9 gives the account of their short ministry in Thessalonica. Although their stay was short, they visited the synagogue and were persuasive enough to be joined by a great multitude of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading Jewish women.
Paul and Silas’ success in ministry caused envy among the unbelieving Jews. So, these unbelievers stirred up a riot, and Paul and Silas were sneaked out of the city by night for their safety.
After stopping in Athens, Paul made his way to Corinth from which he wrote 1 Thessalonians. Of Paul’s letters that we have in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians is one of the first ones written. He wrote the letter around 50 or 51 A.D.
Paul commends them for their testimony and the reports that were spreading about the faith of the Thessalonians, but the primary purpose of the letter was to establish them in the faith. Because of the short time he had with them, he wanted to make sure that they had a firm grasp on the basics.
The basics are essential in any endeavor. The basics provide the framework, the context, and the reasons for our decisions. As a book about the basics of our faith, 1 Thessalonians provides context, meaning, and purpose for our existence and work as the Church.
There is a famous story about Coach Vince Lombardi and the 1961 Green Bay Packers football team. The story goes that on the first day of training camp, Coach Lombardi stood before the three dozen professional football players, and holding up a football said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Then he proceeded to teach about football as if the men knew nothing about football. This focus on basics led to great success for the team.
Thessalonians is our “This is a football.”
A firm grip on the basics is just as crucial for the Church today as it was in 51 A.D. The Church in Thessalonica suffered persecution. They broke with the culture around them and turned from idols to serve the living and true God. We must understand. Thessalonica was the chief city in what is now Greece and was within sight of Mt. Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. We see the power of their turning from idols to serve the living and true God in what Paul says. He says that in Macedonia, Achaia, and in every place, Paul and Silas did not have to say anything because people were telling them of what was happening in Thessalonica. Not only were the Thessalonian believers persecuted, but they were also living philosophically and morally contrary to everyone around them. These circumstances made it all the more necessary for them to stand firm on the basics. Today the world around us opposes and resists everything to do with the basics. As long as the Church does not say anything about the truth, confront sin, talk about the need for repentance or preach salvation through Jesus Christ alone, then the world is content to let us live with our delusions. However, if we say nothing about any of these things, are we even a church?
In chapter 1 of 1 Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul expresses his great gratitude for the Thessalonians. 1 Thessalonians 1:2-4 says:
We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father, knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God. (I Thessalonians 1:2-4 NKJV)
Paul and his co-workers are thankful for the Thessalonians’ faith, love, patience and hope. They based their gratitude on their knowledge of the Thessalonians’ election by God. The remainder of the chapter explains how they knew that God chose the Thessalonians.
First, they knew God chose the Thessalonians because the gospel came to them with power and in the Holy Spirit.
1 Thessalonians 1:5 says:
For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake. (I Thessalonians 1:5 NKJV)
I like how Ellicott interprets this verse when he says:
If God had not set His heart upon you, we never could have been as successful among you as we were.
The Thessalonians’ response to the gospel was the first evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit at work. We always look for a human explanation. Some speculate that those who turned to Christ from among the God-fearing Gentiles were fed up with and disillusioned with the many so-called gods of the Greeks. Some also think that their hearts were prepared for the gospel by their association with the synagogue since Acts 17:2 tells us that Paul spent three Sabbaths there.
The Holy Spirit probably used these factors in some of the lives touched by the Gospel in Thessalonica. However, salvation is a very personal thing. There is no way of accounting for the drawing of the heart to God that takes place when a person accepts Christ. The circumstances and background of each person are different. However, the drawing of the heart is the same. Jesus said:
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:44 NKJV)
There is a drawing that takes place that is not explained by natural factors. Of course, if a person wants to explain it away, he or she will be able to find a way to explain this drawing by natural means. This is the first trick the devil plays on any new believer. He tells the new believer, “Oh, what you experienced was not real.” And then he will invent an explanation. It does not matter what the explanation is as long as he can get the person to doubt what has happened. The reason the devil starts here is that the drawing of the heart is the first evidence that God is calling a person.
However, this drawing is not the only evidence. Paul says the gospel came to them not only in word. The drawing is so important that the devil mimics it. For example, one of the significant components of proselytizing for the Mormons is the experience of a “burning” in the chest or heart. The word, or Λόγος (Logos), is essential. We must not abandon reason. We know that what we believe is true because of historical evidence, the evidence of life, and how our faith fits with reality.
Paul brought the word, the Λόγος, and the fact that the people received it was evidence of the working and power of the Holy Spirit. The truth of 1 Corinthians 2:14 applies to this initial step in salvation.
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (I Corinthians 2:14 NKJV)
Paul explains this inability to receive the truth more in 2 Corinthians 4:4 when he says that the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving.
The response of the Thessalonians to the gospel message was evidence that God had chosen them, but it was not the only evidence. There was much more, and Paul continues to talk about this evidence in chapter 1.
The other evidence of their conversion was the fact that their lives were changed. Paul knew God chose them because their lives were changed.
1 Thessalonians 1:6-7 says:
And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. (I Thessalonians 1:6-7 NKJV)
First, they became followers of the Lord, then they suffered persecution, and they suffered the persecution with joy. This was such a huge change that Paul says that the word of God went forth in every place. People were telling Paul and his companions about the amazing things that had happened in Thessalonica. He said, “...so that we do not need to say anything.”
In James 2, James tells us that faith without works is dead. This change that took place in the Thessalonians is what James meant. 1 Thessalonians 1:8 says, “...your faith toward God has gone out.” The fact that we are saved by faith and not by works does not mean that faith does not change our lives. When someone believes, we expect a change of life. A good statement of this truth is the NLT’s interpretation of James 2:14.
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? (James 2:14 NLT)
Change is necessary evidence, but it is not just any change. An unsaved person can turn their life around and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. However, there is certain content that comes along with the change that indicates God’s choosing. We see the exact content of this change in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.
For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to 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, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (I Thessalonians 1:9-10 NKJV)
We see the essential elements of the change that was evident when the Thessalonians accepted Christ. These were as follows.
- They turned to God from idols.
- They served God.
- They expected Jesus to return.
- They believed in the resurrection, which would also include His death and burial as precursors.
- They expected Jesus to deliver them from the wrath to come.
It is important to note that wherever Paul went, people were telling him that these were the things that the Thessalonians believed.
The choosing of God, the imitation of God, and the confession of faith are the absolute basics of being a Christian. These are the “this is a football” truths that we must understand and live out if we are to call ourselves Christian.
In today’s world, “evangelical” tends to represent a block of voters and political views, and “Christian” tends to be a religious affiliation. God save us if this is all we are because political views and religious affiliation are not essential to our faith. We are first and foremost followers of Christ. Now, if our love for and relationship with Jesus does not inform our politics or our religious affiliation, I would question if we know Jesus. However, these things are secondary to knowing Jesus. Knowing Jesus is first.
The question for us today is not where we stand on the social issues of the day. The question for us today is, “Does the world tell others about us that we:
‘…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, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come?’”