Encouragement for Persecuted Christians
Passage: 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 1. If you weren’t here last week, we started a new series in 1 Thessalonians. This is one of Paul’s first recorded letters, written at the tail end of his Second Missionary Journey while he was in Corinth to a church he had just started in Thessalonica. Paul had fruitful ministry in Thessalonica but then had to leave the city sooner than he had anticipated because of persecution. He was concerned about how these new believers were holding up under persecution, so he sent young Timothy back to check on them. Timothy returned with an encouraging report, and in response, Paul penned 1 Thessalonians. Hopefully that context is becoming settled in your mind.
Now, we said that Timothy brought back an encouraging report, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges to the Thessalonians’ faith. To help you put yourself in Paul’s shoes, I want you to imagine that you’ve just recently led someone to Christ. Maybe it’s someone you met here at church. They showed up as a visitor, and you reached out to them, asked if they would consider doing an evangelistic Bible study with you, and they got saved. Praise God! But now some of their old unsaved friends and family members are in their ear saying things like, “I can’t believe you’re a Baptist now. Didn’t I raise you Catholic?” Or, “Don’t you know that science disproves the Bible? Here, watch this YouTube video; it debunks the whole thing.” Or, “Don’t you know that the church is just another business? They don’t really care about you. They only want to grow the church so that they can feel good about themselves and pad their own pockets. Didn’t you hear about the latest scandal with so-and-so celebrity pastor?” Or, “Why do have to go to church all the time? It’s like you think you’re better than us now. But you haven’t really changed. Why don’t you stop pretending and just be who you are?”
Now, you’re proud of your new friend because he is trying his best to ignore what those people are saying. But at the same time, you can tell he is starting to get weighed down. What are some things you might say to try to encourage him?
Obviously, I set up that scenario in order to parallel what is going on here in 1 Thessalonians. The Thessalonians are doing good, but they are facing persecution, and Paul is trying to encourage them. I want you to notice how he does it as we read 1:2-10 (vv. 2-10).
Paul encouragement in this passage comes in the form of two reminders. He reminds the Thessalonians how the gospel came to them, and he reminds them how it changed them.
We touched on v. 4 last week, but I want to go back and read it again, because it serves as the linchpin for this entire chapter (v. 4). Paul says, “I am confident that God chose you.” Next, he’s going to tell why he knows that to be true. First, he’s going to provide evidence that the gospel itself is really true and that its messengers are trustworthy. Next, he is going to provide evidence that the Thessalonians are truly “in” because the gospel has truly changed them.
Evidence that the Gospel is True
1. The gospel is confirmed by the powerful work of the Spirit.
Paul says, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power.” If the gospel is just words, then it’s false. Can we just admit that? If the gospel is nothing more than an academic exercise, then it’s not true! How do we know that? Because over and over again in the Bible, it claims to be more than that. The Bible says that if you believe in this gospel, you will become a new person! Your sin will be washed away, God Himself will come to live within you, and you will be filled with joy. Not only that, but your eternal destiny will be changed! So if those things aren’t happening or haven’t happened, then the gospel isn’t true. But they are happening, and that’s Paul’s point.
Now, does all of this mean that there’s something wrong with words (doctrine, logic, rhetoric, etc.)? No! Certainly not! “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” So doctrine (words) is vitally important! But a gospel that is just words is no true gospel.
So what do you think Paul means when he says, “Our gospel came to you in power?”
The verse that immediately comes to mind is Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes….” So the gospel came in power because the Thessalonians were powerfully converted. But the Greek word for “power” can also be translated “miracles.” In fact, this Greek word for “power” is literally translated with the English word “miracles” many times in the New Testament. So the gospel also came in power because the missionaries performed powerful miracles. I think it’s safe to assume this was the case given what we are told in other parts of the book of Acts, even though the account in Acts 17 doesn’t specifically state that Paul performed miracles in Thessalonica.
So the gospel came in power, but it also came “in much assurance,” v. 5 says. That word could be translated “conviction,” and it may refer either to the sense of conviction with which Paul preached, or the overwhelming conviction “of sin, righteousness, and judgment” that came upon those who believed. I think it refers to both. So again, the gospel didn’t come in word only. Paul, Silas, and Timothy were passionate about their message, and their hearers were “cut to the heart.”
Of course, who brought about this boldness, this overwhelming sense of conviction, these miracles, and these powerful conversions? Where did that all come from? It came from the Spirit! And that is why Paul mentions the Spirit in the same context.
So the gospel is true because it is accompanied by the powerful work of the Spirit.
2. The gospel is confirmed by the lives of its messengers.
Since we live in an age in which the canon is complete, it’s hard for us to appreciate the close connection that existed between the apostles and the churches at this early juncture. The New Testament hadn’t been written yet, so when Paul told the churches something about Jesus, they basically had to take his word for it! That’s why the false teachers often used character assassination to attack the people’s faith. They knew that if they could discredit the apostles, they could basically discredit the message. So in this letter, Paul takes time to give the Thessalonians a gentle reminder about the kinds of men the Thessalonians knew them to be when they ministered in Thessalonica He does so primarily in 2:1-12, but this phrase at the end of v. 5 anticipates that section. He says, “You know what sort of men we were among you.” What sort of men were they? Well, just read some of 2:1-12, and you’ll quickly find out (2:3-7). I think you get the point.
So in v. 5, Paul provides evidence that the gospel really is true. It was confirmed by powerful works of the Spirit, and it was confirmed by the lives of its messengers. Next, in vv. 6-10, Paul is going to encourage the Thessalonians that they are truly “in” by reminding them of the ways God had changed them. This is where we go back to that catchphrase “evidences of grace” that was helpful last week. Paul is going to point out evidences of grace in the lives of the Thessalonian believers. What were some of these markers?
Evidence that the Thessalonians Are Chosen
1. They imitated joyful suffering (v. 5).
During my “Marathon” series, I emphasized the importance of following godly role models; and the more I study, the more I see that theme in the Bible. But like I said in that study, what’s the problem with following other people? (They can lead you astray because they are sinners.) That’s why most importantly, we need to follow the example of “the Lord” (which, in this verse, is a reference to Jesus). Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
But I want you to notice, this verse seems to indicate that there was something about Paul and Jesus that the Thessalonians specifically followed. What was it? It was their willingness to suffer with joy. The Thessalonians received the word in the context of “much affliction.” They didn’t come into this with rose-colored glasses. They watched Paul, Silas, and Timothy suffer. But they received the word anyway! And that willingness to suffer for the gospel was evidence that they were truly saved.
Moreover, they didn’t just endure suffering like most people endure a trip to the dentist. They were actually joyful! Jesus said, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The writer of Hebrews tells us to look to Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross.” And James says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” One of the unique characteristics of Christians is our unshakeable joy. Do you have unshakeable joy? The reason our joy is so unique is that it can’t be worked up. It doesn’t matter how hard a lost person tries to fake the kind of joy that we have; they can’t do it. Why? Where does our joy come from? It’s from the Holy Spirit! “The fruit of the Spirit is… joy.”
And so the Thessalonians could look at their lives and be encouraged because they had joyfully embraced suffering. They could also look at their lives and be encouraged because they had become examples to others.
2. They became examples to others (vv. 7-8).
I love the way this plays out! In v. 6, the Thessalonians follow Paul and Jesus. Now, in vv. 7-8, they themselves have become examples to others! Isn’t that beautiful?
Some of you are looked up to in this church as role models of what it means to follow Jesus. And you’re going, “How did this happen? I mean, if they only knew all the sins I’ve committed….” But that is exactly how God intends it to work! You follow the pattern of somebody else until you become the pattern for somebody else!
Imagine a young man who wants to become a blacksmith. So he goes to work for the village smithy and becomes an apprentice. At first, his job is just to watch and run errands; but then one day, the smithy says, “Here, take ahold of this hammer.” And he puts his hand on top of the young man’s hand, and together, they strike the iron. They do this over and over until the young man begins to develop muscle memory. Then, one day, the smithy says, “Now you do it.” The young man says, “Me? What if I mess up?” “It’s okay,” he says, “Just give it a try.” So the young man gives it a try, but at first, he gets nervous and does it wrong. So the Smithy says, “No, like this. Remember?” And he walks over and guides the young man’s hand again. As time goes by, the smithy goes from guiding the young man’s hand, to observing him closely, to checking his work, to giving him periodic feedback, until eventually, the two of them become partners. The old man dies and the young apprentice takes over his business. Then, one day, another young man wanders into the shop. The first young man (who actually isn’t so young anymore) takes him on as an apprentice, and the cycle starts all over.
That’s what’s going on here in 1 Thessalonians 1, except it’s all happening very quickly. In just a very short time (maybe a year? –it’s hard to say), the Thessalonian apprentices have become journeyman, and now other churches are looking to them for encouragement!
Notice how far the Thessalonians’ testimony has travelled (vv. 7-8). So Paul says, “You have become examples to all of the believers in Macedonia and Achaia! But it’s not even just here in Greece; people everywhere are talking about you!” In fact, in sort of a comical moment at the end of v. 8 and the beginning of v. 9, Paul says, “Word has gotten around so much that we don’t even need to tell people about what happened in Thessalonica; they tell us about what we did there!”
Now how was that possible? Well, you might remember from last week that Thessalonica was a very important city. It was located on both an excellent harbor AND a very important road. It was the biggest city in Macedonia and the capitol of the province. Just like you and I make periodic trips down the hill, people in those days would have travelled to and from Thessalonica for various reasons. If they were Jews, maybe they stopped in at the synagogue and heard about what had happened. If they were Gentiles, maybe they heard the gossip about Paul and Jason. From the book of Acts, we know that the accusation the unbelieving Jews made against Paul, Silas, and Barnabas in Thessalonica was that “Those who have turned the world upside down have come here too.” So we can assume that even in a short time, the gospel had a major impact on the city. Also, we have to remember that people who got saved in Thessalonica would have travelled, too. Maybe they went to the next city to visit relatives. Or maybe they moved. And as all of this happened, the gospel was having a trickle-down effect from Thessalonica to the entire region, the neighboring region, and beyond.
If you think about it, what happened in Thessalonica was very similar to what happened in the book of Acts, where the gospel went from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is one of the primary ways the gospel advances. We might say that it grows “organically” by means of life-on-life disciple-making as believers share their faith and travel from place to place. Now, the life of Paul is also an example of the importance of strategic initiatives and missionaries in taking the gospels to unreached peoples. But once “outposts of the gospel” have been established in new locations, the gospel spreads organically, as people travel and share their faith.
So news from Thessalonica was spreading around. And I want you to see from v. 8 that there were two aspects to the report that “rang out” like a bell from that city. First, there was the gospel itself, because it says that “from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth,” and “the word of the Lord” is most likely the gospel. But then also there was also the church’s testimony, because it also says, “Your faith toward God has gone out,” which seems to be referring to the particular testimony of this church’s faith despite opposition.
So you’ve got the gospel and personal testimonies. Don’t those two often go together? The testimony of a life transformed is a powerful witnessing tool. When you’re giving the gospel, remember to share your testimony.
So the Thessalonians could look at their lives and be encouraged because they had imitated joyful suffering, because they had become an example for others, and because they had turned to God from idols.
3. They had turned to God from idols (v. 9).
In Acts 17, we are told that Paul began his ministry in Thessalonica at the synagogue and that some of the Jews and Gentile proselytes believed. However, based on this verse, it appears that most of the Christians at Thessalonica were former pagans who used to worship idols. These believers had turned to God from idols.
Verse 9 is a great verse on the doctrine of conversion. Do you know what conversion is? When a person gets saved, God regenerates him or her. That’s the divine sovereignty side of salvation. But at the same time, that person also repents and believes. That’s the human responsibility side of salvation, and the theological word for that is “conversion.” From v. 9, we see that salvation involves repentance, because the Thessalonians turned to God from idols. We also see that syncretism (for instance, as practiced by the Roman Catholic Church) is unacceptable.
Are you familiar with the background of how the Roman Catholic Church employed syncretism? Basically, when they would go into new areas (for instance, when the Spanish settled Mexico), they wouldn’t try to convince the natives that all of their old gods were false. Instead, they would find creative ways to combine Catholicism with the pagan practices already present. They found this to be a more effective way of converting the people. Do you see a problem with that strategy? If a person has not given up his false gods, he isn’t truly saved! This has massive missiological implications. I’m sure Fred and Karen have spent a lot of time thinking about these truths as they have ministered in Africa and prepare to go back there. Missionaries have to be very careful not to present Jesus as just another god for people to add to their shelves. They must show them that the God of the Bible is the only true God and that Jesus is the only way to heaven.
That last phrase in v. 9 is a reference to Jeremiah 10:10. In context, Jeremiah is preaching against idols, and he mocks them, saying, “They decorate it with silver and gold; They fasten it with nails and hammers So that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, And they cannot speak; They must be carried, Because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, For they cannot do evil, Nor can they do any good.” And he goes on. But then with reference to God, Jeremiah says in v. 10, “But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God.” So what does this reference to Jeremiah 10 and the truths of the Old Testament prove? It proves that these people who were converting in Thessalonica were embracing not only Jesus, but Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. New Testament Christianity is not in competition with Old Testament Judaism; it is an extension of Old Testament Judaism. We serve the same God as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whereas the Jews who reject Christ reject His Father, as well.
So the Thessalonians should be encouraged because they had turned from idols to serve the true and living God. Finally, the Thessalonians should be encouraged because they were waiting for His Son from heaven.
4. There were waiting for the Son from heaven.
This is the second reference to eschatology in the book of 1 Thessalonians (last week, we talked about the phrase, “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” in v. 3), but it won’t be the last. Like I said last week, 1 Thessalonians has a lot to say about eschatology. In fact, every chapter in the book ends with a reference to eschatology.
Do you all know what eschatology means? It means the doctrine of last things. Eschatology refers to the branch of theology that has to do with things like the Second Coming, the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennium, the various judgments, the eternal state, etc. It is a massive topic! It’s also a hotly debated one, and some of those debates have to do with the interpretation of passages in 1 & 2 Thessalonians. So we will be talking more about this moving forward; but for now, what I want you to see from this verse is that one of the markers Paul pointed out in order to encourage the Thessalonians was that they were waiting for Christ’s return.
This is the only time the Greek word for “wait” occurs in the New Testament, but it does show up in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in which it refers to a hopeful anticipation. When I get home from work most days, my girls are all waiting to see me. Elise tells them when I’m on my way, and then they sit on top of the couch near the front window and watch for my truck. And when I pull into the driveway, they race out to greet me. Even Mollie comes crawling out! That is the idea behind this word “wait.” It is not passive; it’s active. We eagerly await Christ’s return; and we live holy, faithful lives, because we know that He could come at any time.
When Jesus comes, His wrath will be poured out on unbelievers. But this verse promises that we who are saved with be delivered from that wrath. We will not have to go through it. This is one of the arguments for the Pre-Tribulational Rapture, because the Tribulation is referred to in the Bible as a time of God’s wrath, and this verse (along with Revelation 3:10) says that we will be kept from God’s wrath. We’ll get into that more later. But for now, notice that this eager anticipation of Christ’s return was a sign that the Thessalonians were truly saved.
As we wrap up, I want to challenge you to do what Paul did in this passage and to encourage fellow believers, especially young Christians. That scenario I presented at the beginning is real. Most of those quotations I made up were based on things I’ve actually heard said or that other Christians have told me about. We may not be facing persecution on the level of what the Thessalonians were experiencing, but we’re still facing it, and this is especially true of those who are new to the faith. So look for people like that in the church, and go out of your way to befriend and encourage them. Notice the evidences of grace in their lives that they may or may not even notice! Help them to remember what God has done. Be a good example that they can follow, just like Paul, Silas, and Timothy were for the Thessalonians. And encourage them to press on.