Paul was in a terrible fix: he had been forced to leave his new disciples in Macedonia, and he was particularly uneasy about the new Christians in the second church, planted in Thessalonica. After all, hadn’t Jesus taught that sometimes the gospel mission ends in disaster? (Matthew 13:20-21)
The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
And what had happened in Macedonia looked ominously like that parable: the Thessalonians had received the word with joy; then trouble and persecution had come, and come precisely because of the word. Had they, then, just as quickly fallen away?
No wonder Paul was anxious, as we saw last week in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2:
So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith…
Paul said that Satan had kept him and Silas from returning from Athens to Thessalonica (2:18). We have no idea what that might have looked like, we only know that it was effective. But what happened? Satan blocked the two senior members of the team, but not their assistant, young Timothy. Maybe he hadn’t bothered with him: after all, Timothy was a kid, maybe 20-22 years old at this point, and he had only been a missionary for a few months. But Paul and Silas make a decision, a risky one, as we can only picture in our minds:
“Hey Timothy, come over here and talk with us!”
“Timothy, how would you like to go on a special mission? It will be your very first solo work as a missionary!”
“Okay, you are going to run the Satanic blockade and travel to Thessalonica on our behalf. You will go on a reconnaissance mission to get information. Here’s the details: you will walk from here to Thessalonica (a trip of two weeks each way by foot), locate and meet with the new Christians there. If there are any still left. You will observe; encourage; and most critically, return here to us with your report. You got all that?”
“And oh, by the way, try not to get arrested; beaten; killed.”
And so Timothy set out. We can imagine the apostles watching the calendar. “It’s been two weeks, he must have gotten there by now.” And then he is probably spending weeks with them, and then there’s the trip back. And so two weeks pass, then four, then six – and where was Timothy? And what grim report might he have for us?
And then suddenly Timothy shows up at the door; I can only imagine he ran the last few miles and showed up out of breath.
“Good what? Good grief??”
“Good news…all…good news!”
“Excellent news. The Thessalonians have not only survived, they are positively thriving! The seed fell on good ground, and the gospel is growing like you can’t believe! And they are reaching out to make new disciples! And they love one another, and, oh, it’s just incredible!”
“Timothy, get your breath!”
And then Paul came up with another idea: “Timothy, you will return to Thessalonica. But before you go, I’m going to dictate a letter to them, and you will take it with you in your backpack. When you get there, you will get everyone together, and you will read it aloud. Okay? This is a whole new thing, I’m going to call it a Pauline Epistle!” And that’s how we got so many books of the New Testament.
To get a sense of how 1 Thessalonians looked, unroll about 3 feet of paper towel, and imagine columns of handwritten text starting at the far left end. It was then rolled back up as a scroll. [At this point I invited the young members of our little flock to color a picture of Timothy handing a scroll to the Thessalonians; they later came up to show them to the rest of us].
1 Thessalonians is famous for being very emotional, because it just drips with a sense of relief that their new friends are doing so well. And we have to fully appreciate a statement that’s buried half-way into the letter: “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.” (1 Thess 3:6)
And now, we can return to chapter 1 and read something similar:
First, the introduction: Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you.
Then Paul does what he usually does in his letter, is to give thanks to God for the recipients. And in his letters he doesn’t just say, “Thanks, God!” in general terms. He thanks God for very specific things and in a way gives the reader a sense of where the whole epistle is going to go; you can read his other letters to see what I mean.
Listen to his thanksgiving here, to see why he is writing this letter at this time (1 Thess 1:2-3, 6b, 9b NIV), as he echoes the good news that Timothy has just related to the apostles:
We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit…
I have quoted the New International Version, because I think it captures the sense of the original of v. 3 with more clarity than the New King James, which some of you are reading. The little word “of” in the NKJV needs to be unpacked, since in English we would not normally say “your patience of faith.” The NIV shows that works come from faith, labor from love, and endurance comes from the inspiration of the hope they have in Jesus.
Now, how is it that Paul is so sure that God has transformed them? I ask this because he cannot see into their innermost beings. People can only “look at the outward appearance, but Jehovah looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7) And it’s not as if you can go to the local drugstore and buy a test kit – blue and the person is really and truly a believer, and pink if he’s a phony.
But Jesus also said in another place, “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). So Paul has to do what we all do: observe carefully what sort of attitudes, actions, motives, and yes, words, a person produces, and from that deduce what is going on between them and God. And fruit that is real will last over time – anyone can behave well for weeks or months, but after a while it will grow old and people will show their true colors.
How do we know that the Thessalonians truly believed? Because they did works, actions, that reflected that same faith. And this is a dynamic that we have to look at closely. For we are saved by faith alone, faith in Christ, and not by any works we could do in reality or even hypothetically.
But if we go over to the epistle of James, he says in 2:26 that “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” His point is, “I hear a lot of people boast about how much faith they have, but I don’t see them doing any notably Christian works.” Some people think that James is contradicting Paul, who said that we are saved through faith alone. But not at all! Paul would agree with James, that authentic faith will, must, result in a changed life.
To put it another way, that does justice to Paul and to James: faith and works are two different things; but faith always results in works. On the flip side, if a person doesn’t evidence true good works, you have just cause to doubt whether they have faith either.
Faith and works are friends, not enemies.
Let’s imagine Betty and Linda, two best friends. They are always doing things together. You go to the market and there they are shopping. You go to church, they are already there. You are at a party, and Betty walks in, and you muse, “Linda cannot be far!” and sure enough, she’s right behind her friend.
Faith alone saves us; but faith always brings works.
Good deeds do not save us; but true works are always based on saving faith.
The Thessalonians also labored hard because of their love for one another; and because of the hope they had in Christ – and hope is faith, oriented to the future – they endured or persevered, they stuck to their new Christian path. And they had joy (v. 6) right in the middle of persecution.
Let’s think about how we can possibly carry out such righteous actions, just as they Thessalonians did.
When we talk about the new life in Christ, it is not as if we say, “Okay, you believed in Christ, so now you have to follow this long list of rules!” To use the bigger words, we should not imagine that we are justified by faith and sanctified by hard work. What Paul is saying in v. 4 and 6 is that if you truly evidence faith, love, hope, and joy, then it is the Holy Spirit working in you, and it is nothing short of divine intervention, it’s a miracle. We don’t try to do nice things under our own steam, but we have a whole new life to live.
I like this story:
There was a man who lived next door to this family that had an incredibly mean dog. Every time the man came home from work the dog would tear across the lawn, bearing his teeth, and yapping at him, meaning he had to run to his front door to keep from being bitten.
Then one day, he parked his car and got ready to do his daily 50-yard dash, and sure enough, the dog came running and barking. But this time the dog danced around him, begging to be petted, and showing his joy at seeing the man come home.
So he went over to his neighbor and asked, “What in the world did you do to that dog? Give him some new pill? Use some new training method? Beat him, for goodness’ sake?” “No!” was his answer. “The thing is, the old dog died. But I like the breed, so I went out and bought a dog that looked just like him. No, mister, that there is a whole new dog!”
And that there in our mirror is a whole new person in Christ.
There was a man I met many years ago, whom I will keep anonymous. He was a “hugger”, in a subculture where men didn’t go in much for hugging each other. But he was a “gentle giant,” who always had a good word for you, who gave younger guys advice and encouragement. That’s the man I came to know. But later someone told me that I was seeing the After picture, and they had seen him Before Christ came into his life. His story was that he had been an angry, bitter drunk; a violent, foul, hateful man. So a man who I thought was a nice guy, was in fact a walking miracle. He was like a whole new dog! And he was not transformed by someone giving him thick volumes of rules, but by God himself.
Paul is saying to the Thessalonians in these verses that, I know you are God’s own true children; I have seen this before in other times and places, so I know it when I see it. The Thessalonians stayed loving, for example, in the very roughest of times, when they were losing their families, their friends, their jobs.
True conversion will lead to true works, whether in our speech, our attitudes, our actions. The authentic and normal Christian life is that your deeds are God’s mighty deeds in you. No, you are not a puppet or a robot, it’s really you who make decisions, take action, adopt attitudes, choose motives – but on a deeper level, it is Christ who lives in you. And if you are .001% more loving today than you were yesterday, then that right there is a miracle of God.
To close: We have said that the Scripture is not written to be read and studied alone, but to be obeyed, to be then channel by which God instructs and molds us and invites us to love and obedience. So yes, we are reading in these weeks a letter that was written by a teacher long dead to people long forgotten. But if we are hearing it today, then God turns to us and nudges us through the same Holy Spirit and says, “And you? What are you going to do about this?”
I invite you to turn to God in prayer before we close, and invite him to examine your hearts to see if there is anything that is wrong, or that is right but done under your own power. You are doomed to failure, and it is critical to let God confront what is inauthentic in your live; so it’s bet to deal with any issues here and now. And in a few minutes we will pray a prayer to invoke God’s blessing.
This expository series is based on my volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament; readers might want to acquire that commentary if they wish to see the exegetical work behind these talks – warning: it’s written at a technical level.
“How do we know God is at work in us?” [Sermons on 1 Thessalonians, Week 2], by Gary S. Shogren, Ph.D in New Testament Exegesis, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica