Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Birth of a Church

Last year my family vacationed for a week on the beaches of Hilton Head, SC. During the middle of the week I took the family to nearby downtown Savannah, GA; an interesting city that is perfect for a walking tour because of the many city squares and the beautiful architecture that you find throughout the downtown area. I loved the history of the place, and I loved walking the city streets and enjoying the sights. My boys and their nieces, on the other hand, were bored stiff and hated every minute of Savannah. They didn’t care for architecture. They weren’t impressed with the city squares, and they most definitely did not like walking around in the hot Georgia sun on an August afternoon. “Let’s get out of here, dad, and get back to some real fun!” That’s what I heard most of the afternoon.

Many folks feel about the Bible the way my boys felt about Savannah. It doesn’t seem real to them and they are not interested. They think they are in a religious museum, looking at ancient artifacts that have no meaning for life in today’s modern and scientific world. But they are wrong. No book is more relevant and meaningful for our lives than the Bible. This book is not, and will never be out of date or out of touch.

1 Thessalonians is a letter that was originally written in 51 A.D., but its message is just as true, just as important, and just as relevant in 2009 A.D. It was written by a real man to real people who constituted a real church which was experiencing real problems as the ministered in the real world which was real unfriendly to their Christian faith. If you are a believer and a member of your local church you will be able too easily identify with these people because you live in a similar world and face many of the same problems, which you will see as we make our way through 1 Thessalonians together. Once you understand the context, the concerns, and the consideration of this letter, you will see how up-to-date and practical it is.

The Context

To begin a study in Thessalonians the natural place to begin is…in Acts 16:9! Why start in Acts if you’re going to study Thessalonians? Because Acts is the history book of the original church and the churches that she spawned. It is the “minute book”, if you like, of those early churches; describing when, how, and under what circumstances the gospel was spread throughout the Roman Empire. We also discover who the missionary was that God used to plant those churches, and it is almost exclusively Paul; who got by with a little help from his friends.

In Acts 16:9 Paul and his friends Silas and Timothy have reached an impasse. They are in the initial stages of what we now call Paul’s 2nd missionary journey. The plan had been to revisit the churches which were planted on the 1st journey, and then move on to the south or north, but the Holy Spirit forbade them from going in any of those directions (Acts 16:6-7). They have just come from the east; now they are prohibited from going north or south, so they head west to the port city of Troas situated on what is today the NW coast of Turkey (Aegean Sea). While in Troas Paul receives the “Macedonian call”(Acts 16:9-10). In this passage there is a change from the third person pronoun to the first person, indicating that Luke had now joined the missionary team.)

Paul and his companions were in no doubt as to where they were going – into Macedonia, and as to why they were going – “the Lord had called us…to preach the gospel unto them.” That is the exact same task set before each church today. There is no doubt as to where we are to minister – in Greencastle and Putnam county in my case - and we know what we are to do – “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

We are not to be a political action committee. We are not the behavior police. We have not been given the task of fighting social injustice and inequality. Instead, “the Lord has called us to preach the gospel unto them”! We cannot reach the world via political, behavioral, or social methods. We must be “determined not to know anything among [them], save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), and once the powerful gospel has transformed a sinner into a new creature then the political, behavioral, and social stuff will fall into place, but not before.

Paul was obedient to God’s word, and the establishment of the church in Thessalonica, as well as so many other churches throughout the western empire was a direct result of Paul’s unflinching, unwavering obedience to the word of the Lord. How is your church doing? You know where you are. Do not be confused or distracted as to why you are there and what you are to do.

Paul and his team left Turkey and came to Philippi, a Roman colony located in Greece. Paul followed a S.O.P. (standard operating procedure) on his missionary journeys: he always worked in large cities (not because he had no burden for the small-towns, but ministered in the large cities and then that church would reach out into the smaller towns nearby) and he always began his ministry in the Jewish synagogue. There was no synagogue in Philippi, however, an indication of the small Jewish population in the city. Nevertheless, Paul boldly proclaimed the gospel, which not only led to the salvation of souls but it also sparked a riot. Paul and Silas were seized, stripped, beaten, and placed in stocks at the city lock-up – Acts 16:22-24. I can just imagine that had I been Paul’s companion instead of Silas, I may have said, “Paul, are you sure that you got the right vision? There are several provinces which begin with “M”. This doesn’t seem right. Are you sure we’re supposed to be in Macedonia?”

But no such whimpering comes from Silas or Paul. Instead, they are praying and singing praises, and what followed their impromptu worship service was the first ever “Jailhouse rock”. Then came the real miracle of the story: the jailer’s conversion and that of his household.

In the morning the magistrates were horrified to learn that they had beaten Roman citizens without benefit of a trial, and they begged Paul and Silas to leave the city. In what had to have been an extremely painful journey the missionary team (sans Luke because the third person pronouns have resumed) the battered preachers and Timothy made the 100-mile trek to Thessalonica. We read about that in Acts 17:1-4.

Let’s examine the words Luke used to describe Paul’s synagogue ministry.

  • “Reasoned” – Acts 17:2 – means “to discourse using questions and answers.” Dialogue would be a good synonym. Effective Christian witness includes being able to answer questions about the faith; 1 Peter 3:15, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear”
  • “Opening and Alleging” – Acts 17:3a – simply means “explaining” and “to place beside.” Paul would read a portion of the Old Testament Scriptures and explain their meaning with reference to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. He proved how the OT was fulfilled in and through Christ.
  • “Preach” – Acts 17:3b – means “to proclaim, to announce.” Paul did not simply teach the Scriptures; he proclaimed Christ and urged his listeners to receive Him by faith.
We can learn much from Paul’s approach. He used the Word of God, and he declared the Son of God. He started where the people were and led them into the truth of the Gospel, and so must we.

Not long into his Thessalonian ministry the non-believing Jews became jealous and resentful of Paul’s success at winning people to Christ. They gathered a group of thugs and assaulted Jason’s house, probably hoping to find Paul and his compatriots there. They settled for Jason since they couldn’t find Paul, and they hauled him before the city’s rulers. Please notice the charge that they laid on Paul in Acts 17:6, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also”.

How had they turned the world upside down? By preaching the gospel: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures…was buried…and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4); by reasoning with them out of the scriptures. Those who would turn the world upside down must use the Word of God as the lever!

Once the riot was finally quelled, the young church snuck Paul and Silas out of town during the night. The team traveled 50 miles south to Berea where again they experienced the blessing of the Lord, and again the bomber boys chased them out of town (Acts 17:10-15). This marks the third consecutive city from which Paul was forcibly removed. Silas and Timothy are able to stay behind in Berea while Paul is forced to go it alone to Athens. That city was so wholly given to idolatry that Paul’s spirit was “stirred” – Acts 17:16 – means provoked and exasperated by what he saw. In Athens Paul preached his famous Mars’ Hill sermon, and while that did yield some fruit he mostly received ridicule and rejection.

From Athens to Corinth is Paul’s next move, and once again he is alone: “After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth” Acts 18:1. The opposition in that city was fierce. In fact, God spoke to Paul by a vision to encourage him in continuing the work (Acts 18:9). And here is why I have you in Acts 18, even though we are beginning a study in 1 Thessalonians, because of Acts 18:5.

You see, Paul is human, not superhuman, and he is in need of some encouragement! From the time that he obeyed the Lord’s call to Macedonia he had been beaten, locked up, ran out of one city after another, dismissed as a “babbler” (ACts 17:18), and then faced with intense persecution in Corinth. Yes, there were blessings along the way, but Paul needed some encouragement. He needed to know that somewhere something was going right. And at that time here came Silas and Timothy from Macedonia. Now Silas was probably in either Berea or Philippi, but Timothy had been in Thessalonica, and he brought to Paul a glowing report of that young church’s growth and development. It was just the thing that Paul needed.

We know this because of what Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2; 6-8. Here is what all of this background teaches us. First, God uses people. God did not send angels to evangelize Thessalonica; He sent a converted Jewish rabbi and his friends, including a young man who was part Jew, part Gentile. God still uses people; dedicated people who will obey His leading and share His message and encourage their brethren.

Secondly, the Gospel is still “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). It did not require years to set up a church in Thessalonica. God’s power was effective in changing lives, and a church was founded in less than a month. Our mandate is still the same: we are to evangelize the world not sanitize it, and we do that only by preaching the gospel. Remember, those who would turn the world upside down must use the Word of God as the lever.

Third, Satan still opposes the Gospel and persecutes God’s people, but persecution can be a means of growth. We have seen that already by following Paul from Turkey into Greece, and as we study 1 Thessalonians, we will see that God’s Spirit strengthens and encourages suffering saints as they go through the difficulties of Christian life.

The Concerns

What concerns prompted Paul to write this letter? While the overall news from Timothy about this young church was encouraging, there were some serious concerns. For starters, the persecution that forced Paul and his team out of Thessalonica had not abated. Persecution is always accompanied by the temptation to compromise and yield to discouragement. Paul wanted to encourage this sapling of a church to stand strong in the faith. He was also concerned about their doctrinal purity, and he wanted to ground them in the doctrines of the Christian faith; with particular reference to Christ’s return.

There were also enemies of the truth in Thessalonica who were slandering Paul and spreading lies; basically accusing him of being a greedy televangelist who just preached religion in order to make money. Paul assured his readers of his love for them and his honesty in ministering to them.

He also wrote to encourage them to live holy lives; a concept that needs to be emphasized in our churches too. And, in this letter, Paul sought to correct some church weaknesses. There were members who did not respect and honor their spiritual leaders. Others were refusing to work, arguing that the soon-coming of the Lord made work pointless, and there was some confusion and disorderly conduct in their public services that needed to be corrected.

We’ve seen the context and the concerns that motivated Paul to write this letter. Let’s finish by considering this letter’s contemplation, and discover what it means to us.

The Consideration

Each New Testament letter has a specific message that is uniquely its own for us to consider. In Romans the emphasis is on the righteousness of God, showing that God is righteous in His dealings with sinners. 1 Corinthians focuses on the wisdom of God, and 2 Corinthians on the comfort of God. Galatians is the freedom letter and Philippians is all about joy. In Ephesians we learn of the riches that we have in Christ Jesus.

The special message of 1 Thessalonians that we are to consider is the message of Christ’s second coming. Every chapter contains at least one reference to the second coming (1 Thessalonians 1:3, 10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:23).

I realize that godly men differ in their interpretations of prophecy, particularly the matter of the church escaping or entering the time of Tribulation. My own position is that the rapture will occur before the Tribulation, and then we will return to the earth with the Lord to bring the Tribulation to a close (Revelation 19:11-21). My own conviction is that we shall be delivered from “the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9-10). I believe the Lord wants us to live in the constant expectation of His coming. I respect the men who hold a different view, but I must lovingly disagree with them.

Paul did not write this letter to stir up a debate. His desire was that it would bless our lives and our church. The doctrine of the Lord’s return is not a toy to play with, or a weapon to fight with, but a tool to build with. Believers may disagree on some of the fine points of Bible prophecy, but we all believe that Jesus Christ is coming again to reward believers and judge the lost. We must all live in the light of His coming.

As we study this letter you should receive assurance for the future, encouragement in witnessing and walking with the Lord in the present, comfort in the loss of Christian loved ones, and stability in a world that is very unsure of itself.

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