Practice God-Centered Thankfulness
Passage: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 1. Today we are starting a new series in 1 Thessalonians. We may also go on to 2 Thessalonians after we finish this book. I’m sorry I didn’t give you more of a heads up on what was coming next, but I am looking forward to this series. I don’t know if you remember, but I preached a sermon on Sunday morning awhile back called, “Get a Job” out of 2 Thessalonians 3. I guess you could say that sermon whet my palate for this study. I’m also looking forward to it because I’ve never taught through one of Paul’s epistles before; and I know there are some topics in these books that I am looking forward to studying. Specifically, I am eager to see what Paul has to say about the Rapture and the Second Coming. And I know that I’ve heard from some of you who are interested in hearing more about eschatology, as well, so I hope that you will enjoy this study. However, even more importantly, I pray that this study will help you to grow.
So that’s why we’re here. Now let’s get started.
Background and Greeting
What can you tell me about the book of 1 Thessalonians or the city of Thessalonica?
Those are all good responses. Let me see if I can fill in some more details. We’ll start with geography. Here’s a map that shows Thessalonica. You can see that it’s a port city that connects to the Aegean Sea. It’s currently the second-largest city in Greece, so it’s pretty important, and it was important in Paul’s day, too, primarily because of its location. Not only did Thessalonica contain a good port, but it was also located on the Via Egnatia, which was the primary Roman road connecting east and west. Leaving Thessalonica, you could travel this ancient highway straight across Macedonia, catch a boat across the Adriatic, and then follow the Via Appia straight on to Rome. Or, if you left Thessalonica headed east, you could follow the Via Egnatia all the way to Byzantium. In terms of the United States, think of the Via Egnatia like Route 66; or, to use a more modern example, 1-10 or 1-40. Cities located along important highways such as these tend to be more important, especially if they’re also next to a major port.
All of this brings up an interesting point about Paul’s church planting strategy. Paul tended to focus on important cities like Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, and Rome. Why? Because cities are like hearts. Just like your hearts suck in blood and then pump it back out, cities tend to suck people in and then pump them back out again. So if you can establish a gospel presence in the city, you can often reach many people in the surrounding areas, as well.
So that’s the geography of Thessalonica; now let’s take a step back now and look at its history. Thessalonica was located at the heart of the ancient Macedonian Empire that had its heyday under Alexander the Great. Greece and its great city-states like Athens and Sparta used to overshadow Macedonia; but that all changed when Philip of Macedon conquered Greece–a task that was completed by Philip’s son Alexander the Great. But Alexander didn’t live very long, and after he died his kingdom was split up. Then, the Romans came along.
During the days of the Roman Republic, Macedonia and Rome had been bitter rivals. They fought three wars that culminated with Rome crushing Macedonia, looting it, and setting up measures to ensure that Macedonia would never rise again. However, in the two hundred years between the Macedonian wars and Paul’s missionary journeys, Thessalonica had managed to regain Rome’s favor. Because they had supported Antony and then later Octavian, Rome granted Thessalonica the coveted free city status, which included exemption from taxes and military occupation as well as the right to self-government.
So when you look at Thessalonica, you’re looking at an area with a long and glorious history, followed by bitter suffering and subjugation, and then a shrewd and calculated return to power and prestige. And by the way, after New Testament times, Thessalonica continued its upward momentum until it eventually became the second-most important city in the Byzantine Empire.
Now let’s talk about Paul’s history with Thessalonica. Paul’s connection with this region began during his second missionary journey, and it can all be traced back to the Macedonian call. Paul wants to head northeast toward the Black Sea, but then he receives a night vision of a man pleading with him, “Come over into Macedonia and help us,” and immediately he knew that God is calling him there. So he crosses the Hellespont and the gospel advances into Europe.
The first major city Paul visited in Macedonia was Philippi, where he and Silas were thrown into prison, God sent an earthquake, and the Philippian jailer got saved. You can read about that in Acts 16. Later, they were released from prison and Paul, Silas, and Timothy journeyed on to Thessalonica, where we pick up the story in Acts 17 (Acts 17:1-10a).
So as usual, Paul starts his ministry in the Jewish synagogue, where he preaches the gospel. And as a result, several Jewish people trust Christ. They are joined by many Gentile adherents to Judaism and even some of prominent women from the city, and the Thessalonian church is born! However, no sooner was it born than Satan rose to crush it. The Jews who had not trusted Christ became jealous, started a riot, and attacked the house of Jason, Paul’s host. Thankfully, the men couldn’t find the missionaries, but they dragged Jason before the city rulers and accused him of harboring men who were defying Caesar by saying there was another King named “Jesus.” The rulers, who were not interested in troubling Rome or losing their free city status, forced Jason to post bond in order to guarantee the good behavior and perhaps even departure of his guests. That same night, Paul’s team left for Berea and later moved on to Athens and then Corinth.
So Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was short–much shorter than he had expected. I’m sure there were still a lot of things he had hoped to teach those baby Christians. But God had moved him on, so he went and trusted God. However, Paul continued to pray for the Thessalonians, and he continued to be concerned for their wellbeing. Also, he tried multiple times to retrace his steps and revisit the Thessalonians right away, but was stopped by what he refers to in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 as Satanic opposition. So Paul did the next best thing and sent Timothy instead.
Timothy returned with mostly good news, and in response, Paul penned 1 Thessalonians, which was probably the second of his letters that are published in the Bible. (Some people actually think 1 Thessalonians was the first of Paul’s letters, but I think Galatians was probably first.) And in this letter, Paul seeks to comfort and encourage the church, defend his ministry, answer questions and clarify doctrines, and give some basic Christian life instructions. Then Paul sent this letter back to the Thessalonians while he continued ministering in Corinth, which was likely where he was at the time.
Alright, let’s jump into the text (1 Thess 1:1). Most letters in those days began with this kind of a formula, which included the name of the author, the name of the recipient, and a brief greeting. In this case, who was the author? Not only Paul, but whom? (Silvanus [or Silas] and Timothy) It’s hard to know exactly what role Silas and Timothy had in the writing of 1 Thessalonians. Certainly, Paul was the primary author. But it appears that Paul wanted the letter to be from all of them, since all of them had played important roles in founding and establishing the church. One unique thing about 1 Thessalonians is that it is the only epistle in which Paul continues to use the first-person plural (“we”) throughout the book.
So the senders are Paul and his team and the recipients are the Thessalonians. But notice how Paul describes the Thessalonians. They are the church “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” which is probably a reference to the New Testament doctrine of union with Christ–that when you get saved, you are spiritually connected to Christ, which is why you have all of the benefits you enjoy as a Christian.
So those are the senders and the recipients; now let’s look at the greeting. Paul says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That is a simple, but very profound greeting. All of Paul’s hopes and prayers for the Thessalonians could be summed up with this one wish: “Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” “May God be gracious to you so that you experience His peace”–peace with God, peace with each other, and peace within your hearts. When you are thinking about how to pray for others, come back to this verse. You can pray for these things and know that your prayers are in line with God’s will.
We’ll spend the remainder of our time looking at vv. 2-4, and my challenge for you is this: “You must practice God-centered thankfulness” (vv. 2-4).
Practice God-centered Thankfulness.
This is the Thanksgiving season. Many of us will probably gather around the table and say something that we are thankful for before Thanksgiving dinner. And even in the secular world, people will talk a lot about the importance of giving thanks. But it’s really interesting–those secular people have no category for thankfulness. Have you ever thought about that? If there is no God, who are you giving thanks to? If everything is basically just random and coincidental, why give thanks at all? –if there is no master plan guiding this universe.
The Christian concept of thankfulness is rooted in God’s sovereignty. Why should I be thankful? Because there is a sovereign God who is in control of all things, and He has blessed me far beyond what I deserve. And so my thankfulness is directed primarily towards Him–so much so that even when I am thanking other people, I am really just thanking God for them.
Let’s ask some questions about thankfulness:
1. To whom does Paul give thanks?
He gives thanks to God! And in what context does He give thanks? (in the context of prayer)
Here’s an idea for you on how to celebrate thanksgiving: pray. Don’t just “be thankful”; actually voice your thanksgiving to God! We tend to set aside time for special things on holidays–time to cook, to eat, maybe to go on a hike–to play football or watch a Christmas movie. How about setting aside time to pray? And if you do so, try this: determine not to ask God for anything. Just thank Him for everything you can think of. I can assure you that if you are thinking clearly, you’ll be there for a while! God has given us so much to be thankful for!
2. How often does Paul give thanks?
He does it all the time, according to v. 2! This reminds us of the importance of consistent prayer. But very quickly, let’s move on.
3. For whom does Paul give thanks?
He gives thanks for “you all,” or all of the Thessalonian believers.
There are some people we find it easy to be thankful for. And then there are those other people. You know who I’m talking about. The annoying ones. The self-centered ones. The mean ones. According to this verse, Paul gave thanks for all of the Thessalonian believers. Why? Because he was convinced that no matter where they were at in their spiritual journey, God was at work in their lives. I want you to see this. Look at v. 4 (v. 4). Paul says, “We give thanks to God for you not because you are awesome, but because you are chosen. You are among the elect. You are the beloved of God.”
Elsewhere, we are told that God loves the whole world. However, context indicates that in v. 4, Paul is referring to the unique saving-love God has for His elect. This is the kind of love Moses referred to in the Old Testament when he said in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers.” So Paul says, “We give thanks for you because you are chosen by God.”
Now, you say, “How does Paul know that? Or for that matter, how can anyone know that?” Paul is confident that his readers are among the elect because there is evidence of grace in their lives. And this brings us to our next question.
4. Why does Paul give thanks?
He gives thanks for evidence of grace in the lives of the Thessalonians (v. 3).
Paul mentions three evidences of grace in this verse: “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (The last phrase of the verse– “in the sight of our God and Father”–modifies the first phrase in the verse– “remembering without ceasing.” Paul prayed in the sight of our God and Father.)
I want you to notice two things about these three evidences of grace.
First, there are the outward manifestations. The Thessalonians were working, laboring, and enduring. If you’re wondering what the difference between working and laboring is, those words are basically synonymous. Both words probably refer generically to whatever good works a Christian may do–for instance, kindness to the poor, hospitality, evangelism, serving in the church, etc. However, the word “patience” is a little bit different. This isn’t the word for “longsuffering,” or patience with people. It’s the word for “endurance.” As we have already seen, the Thessalonian Christians were being persecuted. But the fact that they were enduring despite that persecution was evidence of God’s grace in their lives.
So those are the outward manifestations. But Paul also addresses the inward motivations. He mentions three cardinal Christian virtues in v. 3: faith, love, and hope. This triad or parts of it shows up twelve times throughout the New Testament across the writings of Paul, John, Peter, and the author of Hebrews. It is a very important grouping. But what makes this particular list in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 so poignant is the combination of the outward works with their inward motivations.
To some extent, unbelievers can work and labor and endure. But when a person does the right thing for the right reason, that can only be described as a work of God’s grace. The Thessalonians not only worked; they worked because they believed. Not only did they labor; they labored because they had love. And they didn’t just endure; they endured because they had hope.
I want to talk a little bit more about these inward motivations. I don’t think I need to say much about faith or love. But the word “hope” calls for some more explanation.
What’s the difference between faith and hope? Faith and hope are definitely inter-related, because Hebrews 11:2 says, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for.” However, hope differs from faith in that it is specifically future-oriented. You don’t technically hope in Christ’s death; you believe in it. You hope in His return. Faith logically precedes hope. Without faith, we would have no hope. But since we do have faith, we confidently await the arrival of God’s promises.
One article I came across put it this way. It said, “The relationship between faith and hope can be illustrated in the joy a child feels when his father tells him they are going to an amusement park tomorrow. The child believes that he will go to the amusement park, based on his father’s word—that is faith. At the same time, that belief within the child kindles an irrepressible joy—that is hope. The child’s natural trust in his father’s promise is the faith; the child’s squeals of delight and jumping in place are the expressions of the hope. Faith and hope are complementary. Faith is grounded in the reality of the past; hope is looking to the reality of the future.” Does that make sense?
It’s important to note that biblical hope is not wishful thinking, like, “I hope my team wins the Super Bowl this year.” No, biblical hope is a confident expectation that God will do what He has promised.
The specific event that the Thessalonians are placing their hopes in is Christ’s return. “Hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” means hope that He will return.
Hope is a very important motivation. God wants us to understand what He has planned for us. He wants us to be confident those things will take place. And like that little child whose father tells him he’s going to Disneyland, God wants us to squeal with delight and jump up and down when we think about what He has promised. You can put up with a lot throughout the week if you know you’re going to Disneyland on Saturday. Right? Do you ever counsel yourself like that? “Vacation is coming. Friday is coming. That date night is coming.” Even secular psychologists will talk about the importance of hope. They understand that when people don’t have anything to look forward to, they give up, and eventually, they die. So the trick for them is to find the right carrot to dangle in front of you in order to keep you plugging. God’s way is so much better, isn’t it? We don’t live for this world; we live for eternity, and we are secure in Christ. However, I want you to notice that in both contexts, hope functions the same way. It helps me to persevere. When faced with trials and persecution, I am to draw strength from God’s promises. You can put up with a lot of junk in this life if you know that Jesus is coming!
I’d like to close with a couple of applications.
First, why do you do what you do? I heard an unsaved psychologist recently just rip his readers to shreds over their motives. Now, his point was to get his readers to stay away from toxic people by convincing them that their desire to “help” is probably less than altruistic. But what I found fascinating was the way that he skillfully cut through the depravity of the human heart to expose their sinful motives–motives like earning praise from men, winning future favors, getting closer to the sin you really want to indulge in, or even making yourself look better in comparison to people who are failing. He was merciless! But you know what? He was right! Your heart is deceitful and desperately wicked! That being the case, one of the most convicting questions you can ask yourself is, “Why do I do what I do?” Are your works motivated by faith, love, and hope?
My second application is this: when was the last time you stopped to notice evidences of grace in the lives of fellow believers? This would be a really helpful thing for you to do in relation to people you have trouble loving. There were troublemakers in the church at Thessalonica. They were refusing to work, wasting people’s time, and causing problems. But Paul thanked God for them, too! Despite their immaturity, he could see God working in their lives.
Husbands, some of you would be well-served to notice evidences of grace in the lives of your wives. Wives, the same goes for you. Can you imagine how your perspective would change, if, instead of focusing on the faults of others, you focused on ways God is changing them? Not only would you find more love for that person, but your perspective would be right. Because you would begin to view that person in terms of his relationship to God (which is primary), rather than in terms of his relationship to you, which is not all that important!
In conclusion, I want you to see that Paul didn’t just thank God for the Thessalonians; he told them he was doing so, and He even told them why! He said, “These are the things I’ve seen in you and heard about you that make my heart rejoice….”
Have you ever wondered whether you were really growing in the Lord? Or maybe you wondered if you were making any progress with your kids or with some other effort you were working on. But then someone you hadn’t seen for a while came along and said, “Wow, nice work!” And you’re like, “Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Why? Because change is a slow process, so we often fail to notice little steps that we’ve taken! I want every single one of you to commit to do this this week: notice an evidence of grace in someone else’s life and tell them about it. All of you can do that. It’s not that difficult. And I think it would go a long way toward boosting our morale and keeping us encouraged. “Keep working, because God is working in you.”