Paul has spoken about how he knows that the Thessalonians are genuine Christians: first of all, because they have the fruit of the Spirit. Words, yes, but also attitudes, actions, values that go beyond what we would expect from a human being, apart from Christ.
In v. 5 we read about “power, the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction.”
When Paul speaks of power and the Holy Spirit, he is usually talking of miracles that he performed.
2 Cor 12:12 – I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.
Rom 15:18-19a – I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God.
In Macedonia, we assume that there were many miracles, although we have the record of only one, and that was in Philippi, not Thessalonica – the exorcism of the demon from the slave girl.
If there are miracles, Paul is saying, then God is at work. This is just what the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 12:28 – “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
Deep conviction: sometimes people imagine that, if I could only look at the original text, then it would be cleared right up. In fact that’s not the case. The people who translated the NKJV or the NIV or other versions are world-class experts in the Greek, and they too are not always sure. The New Living Translation here has that “God gave YOU full assurance that what we said was true.” That is certainly one way of understanding it; but I read it in context, along with other versions, in this way: “God gave US EVANGELISTS deep conviction.” Despite all the trouble we faced, Paul says, the rejection, the beating, we were absolutely certain that this gospel was true and that the Thessalonians needed to hear it. It fulfilled the vision of the Macedonian man, who said, “Come over here and help us!”
In v. 4 there is one more evidence that God is at work in them. We run into a phrase that has caused controversy for some centuries, among born-again people: the doctrine of election.
“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you.”
We can compare this with a text in his second epistle to the church:
2 Thess 2:13-14 – But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are other verses which we should also consult: Acts 13:48, Rom 8:29-30, 1 Peter 1:1-2, 2 Peter 1:10.
Now: God does choose or elect us – all Bible-believing Christians have to affirm that, since there are verses that say so. But the controversy is, How is it that God chooses?
There are two main views:
Viewpoint I: In eternity past, God looked forward in time, saw who would believe, and then decided to choose them (here we can mention Wesleyans, Methodists, Nazarenes, some Baptists, other groups)
Viewpoint II: In eternity past he looked forward in time, decided to choose people for his own reasons, and then called them and gave them the grace to believe (Presbyterians, Reformed, some Baptists, other groups). This is the viewpoint I believe.
People have offered objections to Viewpoint II: Does it mean that my fate is sealed? That God chose me or he didn’t, so I have no say in the matter? Or even – what is the use of evangelizing?
Let’s think of evangelism. I pray that people will come to Christ. And amazingly, there were people for whom I prayed many years ago. Some came to Christ sooner, and some much later. Do you pray for people to be saved? The reason we must is that people outside of Christ are so stuck in the prison of their own sin that they can’t recognize a good thing when they see it.
When I was young, I heard someone explain the gospel in clear terms. She then invited us kids to raise our hands if we wanted to become Christians, and so I did. We went into her kitchen, and she prayed with me, and here I am.
Later on I told my mother: “I decided to receive Christ.” And you know what? That was true, I did choose Christ. But later on in my walk with him, I came to see another side of the truth, an important side: that yes, while I did choose Christ, it was also true, and it was a higher truth, that God has earlier chosen me. I a sense, when I was born, grew up for some years, attended that meeting, and raised my hand, God was saying to me: Finally, here you are – I’ve been waiting for you, literally, forever!
What kind of God do we serve? Since in 1 Thess 1:9, we read about turning away from false gods to serve the God who is living and true – God is not a statue; not an idea; not a concept – he is a living Father who initiates relationships with us.
God is the only living and true God. The pagan gods were supposedly all subject to Fate: you could pray to them and ask for help, and they might help you or hurt you to some extent, but they were not in charge of the universe. They too had to submit to Fate, that is, Que será, será.
That’s not our God – he does what he wishes, and is not bound by any higher authority. That means that if I pray for the lost, in faith, than he can and will answer.
So, don’t just say, Well, they are chosen or they are not, so why should I worry about it? No – Pray for your friends, because God is a God who transforms the heart, and share the gospel.
Almighty and most merciful Father, you have reached out to us in your love and mercy. Use us, we pray, to share the gospel of your Son Jesus Christ with those around us and teach us to pray for you to transform their lives. Amen.
“How do we know God is at work in us?” Part B [Sermons on 1 Thessalonians, Week 3], by Gary S. Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica