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Real People - Real Gospel - Real City

A common misconception people on the outside of the church have about people on the inside of the church is that people on the inside are somehow insulated from or unaffected by the real struggles of life. Many attenders perpetuate this idea by observing the unwritten rule that when attending church, if you pretend that your life is perfect, you may just be able to convince others that it is. They could borrow a line from the old commercial on a certain deodorant: when in church, never let those in the pews around you "see you sweat."

These were the exact responses in Thessalonica. The excitement of the Jews, God-fearing Greeks, and leading women who embraced the gospel was about to be interrupted by an angry mob of envious Jews and evil men who had no appetite for the message. Their initial response of anger had escalated to persecution. The gospel that had come to Thessalonica was threatening to turn their city "upside down" by challenging the authority of Caesar through the claim that there was "another king—Jesus" (Acts 17:6-7). This serious charge came with serious consequences. Simply put, the message of Jesus was counter-cultural to the Thessalonians. It hit the very heart of the city. If Jesus was the true King, then Caesar was not. If Jesus was the only Savior, then all the shrines and temples were worthless monuments built to worship worthless gods. If Jesus was in fact the Son of God, then God must be real. And if God was indeed real, then they were accountable to Him. The message of Jesus was therefore unpalatable to most of the Thessalonians, and they were determined to mute the message and the messengers by whatever means necessary. When Jesus Christ is faithfully preached, you don't have to go looking for trouble; trouble will often come looking for you. Hence, out of growing concern for their personal safety, the new Thessalonian converts implored Paul, Silas, and Timothy to leave the city. Under cover of darkness, they left the fragile new church that had been established in Thessalonica.

The church keeps going despite adversity (1 Thess 3:1-5). The decision to leave the city was doubtlessly painful for Paul. A true shepherd is driven not by personal ambition but by pastoral concern. Added to his own personal struggles, a pastor also carries the burdens of those entrusted to his care. Most pastors will tell you that even when God calls them to a new ministry, their fond affection remains for the people they leave behind. Paul may have continued on his journey to advance the gospel, but his heart was still very much in the city. He may have escaped the persecution of the angry mob, but he could not escape his concern for the new believers he left behind. Was the adversity too great? Were they still running the race? Did they feel as if he had abandoned them? When you gaze through the window of Paul's heart, you begin to see 9his passionate love for the church. When he finally pens his letter to the church, his words give us some indication of the inner turmoil he experienced by having to leave them so hastily.

Paul wanted the Thessalonians to be assured of his love for them. He also wanted to know how they were doing. When Timothy returned with an update, what Paul learned brought great joy to his heart.

The church keeps growing through adversity (3:6-8). The Thessalonian church was alive and well. Instead of snuffing out the light of the gospel, the adversity had the opposite effect. As early church father Tertullian so aptly affirmed in his Apologeticus, persecution quite often leads to a stronger church because the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church. The seeds that Paul had planted in Thessalonica were growing in the fertile soil of adversity. The Thessalonian church was growing in its faith in Christ and in its love for Paul. Of course, the church was not perfect. The church was made up of real people who were living out their faith in a very real world. The gospel brought them transformation in their hearts but they had a long way to go in the sanctification of their lives. Paul would address this in greater detail later in the letter.

1 Thessalonians 1:1b

During my 25 years of ministry I have witnessed dozens of programs, campaigns, and initiatives that have promised to bring new life to the church. Many of these have been commendable and have provided valuable resources and offered helpful insights to and for pastors like me as I have sought to lead the church. Yet even a cursory survey of the ecclesiastical landscape reveals that despite the implementation of 10new programs and strategies, an alarming number of churches are plateaued or declining. To borrow a common phrase, it is as if we have been "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." New life does not always accompany new programs. Perhaps the most helpful thing that a pastor can do to breathe new life into his church is not to introduce a new church growth model or to implement the latest church growth strategy. Rather, the most important thing a pastor can do may be to recall what the church really is and refocus his energy into what the gospel really does. The key to breathing new life into your church may not be in the discovery of something new. The key may be found in your discovery of a passionate recommitment to proclaiming something that is old.

The word translated "church" is ekkle¯sia coming from two Greek words (ek kaleo¯) meaning "called out." The church then is the "called-out ones." As you have already observed, Paul's preaching impacted the Thessalonians in such a profound way that Jews, God-fearing Greeks, and "leading women" embraced his message. However, if you pick something up, it most often requires that you put something down. When these believers turned to God, they were turning away from their past way of life. One of the most fundamental truths of the gospel has been expressed in this way. When a person comes to know Jesus, they will know change and if there is no change, there is likely no Jesus (2 Cor 13:5).

God called many of the Thessalonians out of the legalism of Judaism, the emptiness of idol worship, and the bankruptcy of religious ritual. They abandoned their former lives "to serve the living and true God" (1:9). Their lives changed and changed radically. They were called out of darkness into light. They were called out of their sin and into sonship. Their new standing was on the basis that they were now "in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:1b), which is the essence of what it means to be the church. I. Howard Marshall drives this truth home:

11A church is not built on the foundation of programs or strategies, but on the Lord Jesus Christ. When the gospel penetrates hearts it transforms people. Transformed people constitute the church. This concept is the essence of the believers' church, and this was what Paul founded in Thessalonica.

For many years, the American Express Company told its customers that "membership has its privileges." The privileges of a credit card company may offer some short-term benefits, but they pale in comparison to the lasting riches that are guaranteed to those who are in Christ Jesus. To be a member of God's church means that you are the beneficiary of God's grace and peace. Notice that these are not rights to which you are entitled, they are gifts that are given to the church.

Grace: our standing before God. Before being transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, no person, regardless of how deserving or noble, enjoys a proper relationship with God. Sin, like a thick fog on the darkest of nights, blinds our eyes from seeing God for Who He is. Even our best efforts to cut through the fog and darkness prove to be woefully inadequate. Religion can't do it. Love for our fellow man can't do it. Our best intentions can't do it. We are like the travelers on the highway wanting so desperately to speed on ahead but unable to do so because we can't see beyond the hoods of our cars. You know the feeling of helplessness and frustration if you have ever been in that situation. The fog of our sin is just that way. It is simply too thick and there is nothing we can do to lift it. We are hopelessly lost and there is no way out. We may try to ignore it and press on recklessly, but on the horizon there is a precipice that is growing closer and closer. Many people live their lives in this way. Sin has blinded them and they cannot see. The prognosis is not good. There is a cliff in the distance, and it is called "judgment." They speed down life's highway oblivious to the imminent danger ahead.

Before we can have a relationship with God, God Himself must do something about the fog. He has to help us see through it. Here the good news enters the picture. God offers a way out through Jesus Christ. God lifts the fog by grace. Grace in its fullest expression is revealed by the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross. God "made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5:21). By His own initiative, God gives us a way out. The way out is a Person and His name is Jesus Christ. 12His forgiveness can't be earned ... it's a gift. The only way to get this forgiveness is to receive it as a gift (John 1:12). The only way to see God is to embrace Jesus.

The moment we receive Jesus our standing before God radically changes. We are immediately delivered from the fog and the darkness of our sin. Our citizenship is immediately transferred to a different kingdom, and we are clothed with a righteousness that is not our own (Col 1:13-14; Isa 61:10). God did not create the fog; we did. Yet because of His love for us, He provides a way out. God does for us what we could never do for ourselves. Through Christ we now stand in a proper relationship with God, and it is all because of His grace. Life's journey now takes on a new meaning. This is exactly what happened to the Thessalonians. When their standing before God changed, their lives changed because they were the recipients of God's grace.

Peace: our relationship with God. Sin not only destroys our standing before God, it also destroys our peace with God. Sin means war. You and I are at war with each other, and we are at war with God (Col 1:21). When we are at war, there is no real peace. It's no coincidence that public demand for sleep medication nets billions of dollars in revenue for pharmaceutical companies each year. Many of us can't rest peacefully at night because we aren't living with peace during the day. This includes peace in our relationships with others and peace in our relationship with God. The sobering reality is that people are looking for peace in all the wrong places. Jesus Christ offers a lasting peace—peace with one another, peace with yourself, but most important, peace with God.

Let's bring this into focus as it relates to the Thessalonians. An angry mob has stirred up their city, disrupted their fellowship, threatened their well-being, and chased away their friends. This is a recipe for sleepless nights and anxious days, right? Not exactly. You see, you could take away their stuff, but you could not take away their peace. If God's grace is real, then His peace is not only possible, but it is guaranteed. David declares that "the Protector of Israel does not slumber or sleep" (Ps 121:4). Since God is more than capable to keep watch over your life, there is no good reason why any follower of Jesus Christ should not be able to rest no matter how difficult the circumstances.

Indeed, Paul's time in Thessalonica was short. If we did not have access to the "rest of the story," we might readily conclude that his mission there 13was a failure. But as we have seen, the faith of these young Thessalonian believers was anything but superficial. They had a genuine love for Christ and a zealous passion for proclaiming His transforming gospel. Despite Paul's forceful eviction from the city, the faith of the Thessalonians persevered. Furthermore, although he was physically absent, his presence continued to be felt as he took up his pen and wrote his epistles. Even in the midst of the most troubling circumstances, God was doing His work in His way. Paul would never return to the city of Thessalonica, but God was going to do far more there than Paul ever could have imagined. As John Phillips insightfully notes,

That is how God works. No matter how routine the details of your life may appear, not a single detail is wasted by God. If God can use angry mobs (Acts 17:5) and frustrated plans (1Thess 2:18) to bring about one of the most insightful and encouraging epistles in the New Testament, then you can be sure that He will also use your life experiences to bring about your ultimate good and His greater glory (Rom 8:28). While on this side of heaven you are afforded only an occasional glimpse of what He is doing in the world, you know that God is up to far more than you could ever imagine. The Thessalonians have long since been transported to their eternal home, but their faith continues to inspire and encourage. You stand on their shoulders. You also know that a day is coming when those who follow you will stand on yours. That's what it means to be a part of God's church.

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