“The First Task of the Church is to Preach the Word” [Sermon Notes on 1 Thessalonians, Week 5]

Our text for today is:

8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us.

They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

Throughout 1 Thessalonians 1, Paul lists one evidence after another that God is truly working in them. They have faith, hope, love, endurance; they imitate the apostles; they persevere in tribulation; and now finally here is one more piece of evidence, a really extraordinary one: they share the gospel.

Sometimes when Christians are under pressure, they are able to survive, but they turn in on themselves. They are like turtles that pull their heads in until they stop banging on the shell.

The Thessalonians didn’t pull inward; instead they reached out to their neighbors and beyond their neighbors with the gospel message.

From 1:8 we can detect that the Thessalonians are engaged in evangelism. Let’s see what terms he uses:

“Word of the Lord” (that is, the Lord Jesus) = the gospel.

“Rang out” or “Sounded forth” = this means a loud, clear sound.

“your faith in God” = the information that you have believed in God.

It is possible that Paul was thinking of Isa 66, from the version of the Old Testament that the Greek Christians used; I am quoting the NETS translation of Isa 66:18b–19f:

I am coming to gather all the nations and tongues,
…and to Greece (in the Hebrew this was “Javan”) –
those who have not heard my name or seen my glory,
and they shall declare my glory among the nations.

Thus, by coming to Christ, the Thessalonian Greeks have fulfilled prophecy: Greece was turning to God. What is more, as was predicted in the last line, in turn they go on to declare God’s glory among the nations.

We see in 1:9 that “they themselves report”, “they tell”. Who is doing this “talking” in this verse? First, the Macedonians (1:8): their neighbors in Philippi and Berea and others are recounting the marvelous thing that had happened in Thessalonica. The severity of the tribulations in Thessalonica itself seems to have disrupted communication so badly that Paul could not rely on the regular network, but talk about the church indirectly trickled in from everywhere.

He then says “not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.” This indicates that the Thessalonians were going to other towns in the regions to share the gospel.

And what were they telling people? The message of the gospel, to be sure, but they were also showing how the gospel had changed their lives:

Some scholars believe that 1:9-10 might be an outline of Paul’s evangelistic message, and we could arrange it like this:

A  [You should turn] away from idols to God,
B   to serve the God who is living and true
C   and to await his Son from heaven,
B´  he whom God raised from the dead,
A´ Jesus our Savior from God’s coming wrath.

Let’s break this down: “turned away from idols.” According to a leading archaeologist, there was a huge long list of gods and goddesses worshiped in that city. To list them would have taken up the whole epistle!

Repentance does not just mean turning away from idols; this does no good unless there is a turning toward God.

And God is called the “living and true God”, a name that the Jews in Paul’s day liked. The assumption is that idols were dead pieces of metal or wood, but the true creator God was alive. One sees this often in Isaiah, for example in 46:5-7 –

“With whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared? Some pour out gold from their bags and weigh out silver on the scales; they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god, and they bow down and worship it. They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Even though someone cries out to it, it cannot answer; it cannot save them from their troubles.”

According to 1:10 the Thessalonians now “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” This speaks to us of the Second Coming. 1-2 Thessalonians focus on Christ’s return, and in 1 Thessalonians, if you look at the end of every one of the five chapters, Paul mentions the Second Coming. 2:19-20, 3:13, 4:14-17 (and 5:1-3), 5:23-24.

The gospel states that God will judge the world through Jesus Christ, and he also spares us from his anger, wrath, through the death of that same Jesus.

The gospel also states that God raised Jesus from the dead. God is the living God, who gives life to a dead man, so that he will be our savior and judge.

There is an important parallel in Romans 10:9 – ‘If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’

Does Paul expect Christians to evangelize others?

I ask this because in his epistles, Paul never really pushes his disciples to evangelize others. Sure, he tells Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5), but that idea doesn’t come up often. Why?

As the Macedonian Christians knew, “the first task of the Church is to preach the Word.” [Ethelbert Stauffer] Nevertheless, Christians have interpreted the Thessalonians’ “mission” in two broad ways: Does Paul mean that “the gospel is going forth from you” through conscious evangelism on their part? Or does he refer to a spreading awareness of their “personal testimony” that may in turn attract others to Christ? There is evidence that the first interpretation is Paul’s intent, that he expected the Thessalonians to take part in evangelism and that they were succeeding in that task.

First, because the language that “from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth” implies conscious effort.

Two, because the Thessalonians are to have love for non-Christians (3:12 – “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you”), in imitation of the apostles’ love for their converts. In that case, they should have the same concern for their neighbors that Paul and his team showed for them.

Third, because of the nature of Christian discipleship, which we talked about a few weeks ago: a disciple is an imitator, and so the Thessalonians were supposed to imitate the apostles. And what did the apostles do?

Fourth, in a key passage, the Great Commission from Matthew 28:19-20 – “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” When you make a disciple, what do you teach them to do? Everything Jesus commanded his apostles…including the command to make more disciples.

So, this question of why Paul never tells his disciples to share the gospel has a simple explanation: he only brings up a topic, when somebody is falling short. He doesn’t tell the church to baptize new converts, because they just do; so it doesn’t come up in conversation.

So why does he mention it here? For this reason I think: here is a church that labored under heavy persecution, yet they are active in sharing their faith. They couldn’t even get a message out to Paul, who was desperate to get some news; yet they somehow managed to circulate the gospel around Greece.

What does that mean for us?

First of all, share what Christ has done for you. This is what the Thessalonians are doing!

Second, share the truths of the gospel. This takes some careful intention, because people don’t naturally understand what we’re talking about. When we use gospel-words, people hear them through their own filter: for them sin = horrible crimes; they hear different things when we use the words God; save. When people told about the Thessalonians, the term “idol” comes up, which is significant; people who worshipped the Greek gods – Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, Athena – did not use the term “idol”. Idol was a Jewish word, and later a Christian word, meaning “statues that symbolize false gods”. So make sure you know what people need to know when you share Christ with them.

Third, pray. God calls us to faith, so we need to call on God. You won’t talk people into being born again. For whom have you been praing?

Fourth, don’t just share, give an invitation. For some of us, that’s hard, and I understand it. A friend of mine used to take me bass fishing; he’s the expert at it. He watched me handle the rod and reel, and after a while he made the comment, Gary, you need to be more aggressive with the fish.

In the case of evangelism: some of us are too impatient, and we demand an immediate response; many of us (most of us?) are way too patient, we could press the matter more than we do.

Our task includes telling others about Jesus and what he has done for us; but it goes beyond that. We are not just to testify, we are to win individuals and make disciples of them.

“The First Task of the Church is to Preach the Word” [Sermons on 1 Thessalonians, Week 5], by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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