A Gospel That Transforms (AM)
We talk a lot about transformed lives. But what exactly are we talking about? Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians gives a wonderful picture of what a transformed life looks like in us and through us.
A Gospel That Transforms (AM)1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
October 14, 2018
Gratitude is a sickness suffered by the dogs. So said the Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin. That’s one way to approach life. Or there’s GK Chesterton’s philosophy before he became a Christian. He too didn’t believe in God. But he soon realized that atheism was a dead end. This is what he said: The worst moment for an atheist (someone who doesn’t believe in God) is when he (or she) is really thankful, and they’ve got no one to thank. That was a turning point for Chesterton. At 48, he gave his life to Jesus. He now had someone to thank!
To be Christian is to be thankful. From beginning to end, Christians are to be marked by gratitude. At a meeting recently with the leadership team for our new 4pm service, I consciously listened to how each of them began their prayers, and every single one of them began, “Dear God, thank you.” Thank you God that your mercies are new every morning. Thank you for not holding my sin against me. Thank you for calling me to yourself. Thank you for my church, my parents, my family, my job, for the roof over my head.
It’s been nearly two months since our baby daughter Evie died from a rare genetic disorder. Our family still misses her dearly. We’re still grieving and sad. But deep down, though we miss her every day, we’re still thankful. We are thankful she made it out of the womb alive, thankful for the 77 days we got to hold, cuddle, kiss, and smell her, and thankful for the medical teams. We are thankful for our church family who supported us in so many ways, and thankful for what God taught and is teaching us. Not many 77-day old children get to have the sort of impact she did—on both you and us—and for this we give thanks.
Paul thanks God continually (verse 2)
In 1 Thessalonians 1, Paul is thankful. Paul is thanking God for people who live for God. Paul is not only thankful for the work of the gospel in people, but he is thankful for how the gospel works through people. Notice to whom Paul is thankful. The first words that come from Paul’s mouth to this church are not thank you but thank God, 1 Thessalonians 1:2:
“We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers” (NIV).
And part of the way Paul expresses that thankfulness is to pray for the Thessalonian Christians. Paul constantly talks to God about them. Imagine Paul’s prayer diary! The word “Thessalonians” would appear on nearly every page.
The gospel that works in and through people (verses 5-6)
The gospel has powerfully worked in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians. The word ‘gospel’ simply means important news. There’s nothing more important than the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, because it is life-changing news. The words of the gospel are not just ordinary words. They are powerful words. In verse 5, Paul calls it “our gospel”. It is the gospel that Silas and Timothy and Paul presented to the Thessalonians. That gospel came to them not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.
To deal with blind eyes and hard hearts, words alone don’t cut it. God accompanies those words with power. God’s Spirit is the agent of God’s power for the Thessalonians. And that is also how the gospel worked and continues to work in your life. Someone spoke words about Jesus to you, and they weren’t just a talking head! The words of the gospel worked powerfully in your life. Or you were reading those words in the Bible for yourself, and they weren’t just words printed on a page, but God by his Spirit prepared you to receive those words, so that your mind would be penetrated, your heart captivated, and your will re-orientated. That is how you can now give God what he rightly deserves. Any time you open your Bible to read God’s word, or you down tools and get down on your knees to pray, or you pour out your praise to God in song, those acts are the result of receiving God’s words accompanied by God’s power through God’s Spirit.
This powerful gospel works in us to give us backbone, a spine, and make us courageous in the face of suffering. As many of you know, it’s only a matter of time until persecution comes to us as Christians, or other forms of pain, problems, and difficulties come our way. So it was for the Thessalonians, as we read in the second half of verse 6:
“For you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (NIV).
Acts 17 describes how the gospel first came to town, and it involved suffering. Paul and his companions spent three weeks persuading the Thessalonians that Jesus really is the long-awaited rescuer promised by God, who really did die and rise again. But after that three-week honeymoon, things started going pear-shaped. Some dodgy characters got jealous of all the hype, and they formed a mob that led to a riot. Some new converts got caught up in it all, and were dragged in front of the authorities.
Imagine if that was you, shortly after you accepted Jesus. If you had a target on your back as these new Thessalonian Christians had, would you hang in there? Do you think that anyone else would put their hands up to become a Christian, if this was the consequence? On a human level, no way! You would expect that suffering because of Jesus would make these new Christians turn their backs on Jesus. But that’s not how the gospel works in people. Instead, the gospel causes people to put down roots, to stand firm. And so we read in verse 6, that the Thessalonians “welcomed the message”. They embraced the message of the gospel with open arms.
Joy given by the Holy Spirit (verse 6)
But not only that, but God’s Spirit gave them joy. This three-letter word in verse 6 makes all the difference. Joy is what makes the Thessalonians and us not just survive but thrive when the storms of life set in. Joy is like an anchor that stops a boat being tossed by the wind and waves. Joy gives the feeling of something solid, concrete, and lasting. That is what joy is to the Christian when they face severe suffering.
History tells us the same story, that Christians show joy in the midst of suffering. It is the constant refrain, that again and again, men and women, the young and the old, by faith in Christ, display joy when tested by hardship and suffering.
Recently, I’ve been reading with my eldest daughter before bed some short biographies about girls who died in the name of Christ. We’ve just finished the story of Betty Stam. Betty grew up in China and in the 1930s returned there as a missionary. But one day, while she was bathing her three month old daughter, the Communist Army came and stole everything, putting the entire family in prison. The day before their execution, the local postmaster recognized them and asked, “Where are you going?” Their answer describes the joy that I’m talking about: “We do not know where they are going, but we are going to heaven.” Even with their backs against the wall, the gospel works in people. The gospel worked in the Thessalonian Christians, and in Betty Stam, and the gospel is working in you, to produce joy.
Here at MBM we talk a lot about transformed lives. What kind of transformation are we talking about? Is it a transformed body, either shedding five kilos, or bulking up five kilos? Is it a transformed home: a renovation, moving to a better suburb. Or is it a transformed lifestyle, that we might be on top of the bills, all the routines are in place, the home is all organized. Well, the transformation Paul is on about is right there in verses 9 and 10:
“They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (NIV).
The Great Swap—Turn, Serve, Wait (verses 9-10)
This is a great picture of how the gospel works in people. The gospel transformation is described with three verbs: turn, serve, and wait. These Thessalonians had done a four-letter word beginning with ‘S’. They did a SWAP. Christianity is ‘SWAP-ianity’ because essentially you’re swapping sides. Instead of living for self, you live for God. Instead of chasing dead, worthless idols, you pursue and hunger for the true and living God. You swap an empty way of life for one that truly satisfies. You swap the comforts of this life for the treasures of heaven.
Most of us here have a sporting team that we follow. Some of us are more die-hard fans than others. For me, I follow the NBA, the American basketball competition. I used to play with a bunch of guys here from church, until I realized I was too old to play against Filipinos who were half our size, but twice as fast. I probably check the ESPN app, or website at least once a day. Don’t hold this against me, but I play what’s called a ‘fantasy league’ with some friends. Basically we pick actual players for our own teams and play against each other. Growing up, I used to have the posters on the wall. I had the replica toy figures, and the cards. I’ve got a whole cupboard full of them still in my parents’ home! I even brought along my favourite team jersey today.
Just as we all have sports and teams we love, there are also sports and teams that we cannot stand. For me it is Aussie Rules. Apologies in advance if AFL is your thing, but I for one cannot watch it. I don’t get the rules, and it looks like there’s no structure. It just seems chaotic. Last season I probably watched a grand total of five seconds of Aussie Rules football—and that only happened because I was watching Gogglebox on TV! I was actually watching other Aussies watching Aussie rules. But imagine if I turned my back on basketball and instead took up following AFL. Suppose I showed my swap in allegiance by choosing an AFL team to support and going to all their home and away games. Imagine I enrolled my kids into a junior AFL teams. And just suppose that I threw out my jersey of my favourite basketball team, and put on this jersey I bought yesterday with my own money just for this sermon. That’s right, I parted with my own money for this Sydney Swans AFL jersey, just to get a sense of the cost involved in swapping allegiance from one team to another.
Parting with some cash is nothing compared to the swap that these Thessalonians did. When they swapped over to God’s side from idols they stood out like a sore thumb. Everybody straightaway could tell they were different. They made a clean break from their old ways of life—who they hung around with, the way they did business, how they conducted their relationships—and started worshipping the one true and living God by worshipping him his way.
And 2,000 years later, things haven’t changed. In our society, the potential idols might have different names and labels, but they are not that different from those which had ensnared the Thessalonians.
Prior to swapping allegiance to the God Paul preached, they and we might have had idols that reflected our superstitions—spirits, crystals, charms, and ancestor worship—or our attempts at sophistication—a comfortable lifestyle, or wanting to be recognized and valued—or even a misuse and wrong prioritizing of the good gifts of God, like our families, our spouses, or our homes—they too become idols if they get in the way of giving God our all. But becoming a Christian for them and us involves swapping allegiance from those idols, whatever they might have been, to the one true and living God. They turned, served, and waited, and so must we.
The Thessalonian Christians turned to God from idols. They made a clean break with their idols. It was a conscious turning away from them, as they turned their backs on their pretend gods. That’s how they swapped sides and allegiance and loyalty. They turned from their idols. But these Thessalonian Christians swapped sides by turning to the true and living God. They abandoned the idols and fled to God.
But saved people now serve. That’s the second verb there—the Thessalonians turned from idols to serve the true and living God, and not the idols. They gave up being slaves to the harsh task master of idolatry, and instead serve the God of Paul’s proclamation, the one who only ever seeks to do good to us, to bless us rather than break us. They happily sacrificed and gave up their time, talents, and treasures in service of the true and living God, out of desire and not duty. And that is true of every true follower of God.
And lastly, these Thessalonians were marked by waiting. Now waiting can go one of two ways. One way to wait as a Christian is for us to kick our feet up, take things easy, and say to ourselves, “I know where I’ll be spending eternity. I’ll just take things easy, tick off my bucket list, and do it all with the safety net that Jesus is going to let me into heaven”. That is one type of waiting. Or there is waiting Thessalonian style. These Christians genuinely thought that Jesus could return at any minute during their lifetimes, and so their waiting involved getting to work. They felt the reality of imminent and coming judgment, and knew the urgency of the word of salvation. They didn’t want to have any regrets. For them, the time was short, and the name of Jesus must go forth!
The Gospel works in and through (verses 7-10)
Now one of the reasons why I love verses 9-10 is that this is a story not just of how the gospel worked in these Thessalonian Christians, but how the gospel worked through them too! That is clear from verse 7:
“And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (NIV).
In fact, Paul is saying here that he has no need to check in on the Thessalonian church, nor even does he need to say anything at all in addition to the common report about them. He too has heard the rumours, the word on the street about them which has in fact traveled all over Greece. The ‘goss’ about them is that the word of the gospel has undeniably worked powerfully in the Thessalonian believers. The gospel has demonstrably worked in them because they are replicating him.
The gospel believed and preached by the power of the Spirit produces other believers and preachers by the power of the Spirit who replicate the first believers and preachers. The Thessalonian church is the result of their replicating Paul, the believer who first spoke the gospel to them.
The cookie, many cookies, and the cookie cutter
Most of us know what a cookie cutter is. The purpose of a cookie cutter is to replicate exactly the template, prototype, or model of the first cookie. It enables reproducing the same shaped cookie over and over again, without the later cookies losing their form and thus compromising the quality of the replication. The purpose of the cookie cutter is to ensure consistency and quality of the shape of the replicas.
Rather than re-producing cookies, Paul’s purpose in preaching in Thessalonica is to reproduce churches. Essential to that process is that the gospel must work in people, to make them believers—that is, to produce a conviction about God and a commitment from them to turn from their idols to the true God whom they now serve, and to wait for his Son from heaven. They have undergone a ‘turn, serve, wait’ transformation. As a result, these transformed people—believers or Christians— have an enduring joy no matter what gets thrown their way. God uses people like that, to make others sit up and take notice. They themselves become agents of further transformation.
But what was the origin of this transformation? Where did these Thessalonian Christians get this transforming power? Another way to answer this question, using my earlier analogy, is, “Who was the original cookie?” Verse 6 tells us that that it all began with Jesus:
“You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (NIV),
The cookie cutter worked in this first century setting by the Thessalonians imitating Paul, Silas, and Timothy, the ones who brought the gospel to them. But as the Thessalonians imitate Paul and his companions, we know that in reality, they are imitating Christ the Lord, because that is who the messengers are copying (1 Corinthians 11). Paul tells the Thessalonians to imitate him only because he himself is imitating Christ. So really, the original model cookie is Jesus. He’s been the prototype right from the very beginning.
But that’s not all. The cookie cutter kept on cutting more cookies, this time in the other direction. Take a look at verse 8:
“The Lord’s message rang out from you [the Thessalonians] not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere” (NIV).
So through the Thessalonian believers, the gospel went to all of Macedonia. The Macedonian Christians were famous for their generosity (2 Corinthians 8). They practically begged Paul to give, and in doing so, they bankrolled Paul to keep the cookie cutter going. So the gospel went not only to Macedonia but it also went to Achaia and modern day Athens. And from there the gospel went everywhere.
Don’t you love that? Paul just throws a blanket over the rest of the world. This gospel is unstoppable. No wonder Paul can finish off verse 8 by saying, “Therefore we do not need to say anything about it”. Paul is literally speechless. Who needs words when the evidence speaks for itself.
The faith of these Thessalonians was not a private faith. They did the very opposite of hiding their faith under a rock, or staying in a holy huddle. This gospel is infectious, contagious, and unstoppable.
I’ve got a wife who studied microbiology. I nearly failed science so I don’t get how this stuff works, but even I get that at a basic level. Infections spread! You’ve seen the movies like ‘Contagion’ or ‘Outbreak’ or my personal favourite, ‘The Rock’. That’s why people wear those big white suits. with their own oxygen supply.
In this passage, the gospel is infectious and contagious in a good way. We want others to be captivated and gripped by the gospel, so that their lives are transformed, and they turn to God, serve God, and wait for his Son to return. As people who have tasted and are living out those very things—turning, serving, and waiting–we’re the very means by which this gospel will continue to spread.