In these days, it’s not uncommon to hear people wonder, “Is there any hope at all for our society?” As the culture appears to grow more secular, more licentious, and more antagonistic to traditional values and orthodox religion, many in the church have grown more pessimistic. Spiritual decline seems almost inevitable.
But of course there is hope. Christ is the ascended King of all the world, and He is sovereignly ruling over the affairs of time. His Gospel is no less true and no less powerful today than it was when it spread throughout the world in the first century and brought people from the nations into God’s fold. It is vitally important, then, that we greet each new day as the dawning of a fresh opportunity, remembering that the God who worked so miraculously and dramatically in the past is the same God who is alive and well today.
As we consider the challenges of our time, we would do well to look to the Thessalonians. The Gospel made extraordinary inroads into Thessalonica, and in Paul’s first letter to the church there, we can see what happens when God transforms people in an unexpected way. Among the Thessalonians, God chose to work in and through His Word and in and through His people. Their example can inspire in us an expectation that the God who did such things then can do them still today.
It is vitally important, then, that we greet each new day as the dawning of a fresh opportunity, remembering that the God who worked so miraculously and dramatically in the past is the same God who is alive and well today.
As Paul recounts his prayers of thanksgiving for the Thessalonians, he reminds them that God chose them in love, that God changed them radically, and that God used them to proclaim the Gospel in their place and time.
God Chooses People in Love
“We know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (1 Thess. 1:4–5)
It is the love of God that gave rise to God’s relationship with the Thessalonian believers. There’s no question that the Thessalonians had to hear and had to respond to the call of the Gospel. Paul had reasoned with them and shown them from the Scriptures that the Gospel was true, and those who believed responded decisively in faith (Acts 17:1–4). Yet Paul reminds the Thessalonians that their salvation (and ours) rests on the divine choice of God and not on human effort. Left to themselves, they could not behold God’s amazing grace, let alone choose it. God, in His love, opened their eyes to see and believe.
This is the significance of Paul’s saying that the Gospel came not merely as a series of words but “in power and in the Holy Spirit and in deep conviction.” When Paul and his companions preached to the Thessalonians, they preached not their own words but the very word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). There was “a waft of the supernatural” that moved through the streets of Thessalonica. People didn’t say to one another, “These guys are great preachers.” They said to one another, “This message will uncover you, and it will remake you.”
...their salvation (and ours) rests on the divine choice of God and not on human effort. Left to themselves, they could not behold God’s amazing grace, let alone choose it. God, in His love, opened their eyes to see and believe.
When God chooses to move in power and call people to Himself, the great barriers to belief that we perceive in our or any culture will not stand in His way. It is not the receptiveness of the hearer but the power of God that is the determining factor. Because God’s Word is powerful and because His Spirit is at work, we trust that He is still using the convicted preaching of His Word today in our culture as He was in Thessalonica in the time of the apostles.
When God chooses to move in power and call people to Himself, the great barriers to belief that we perceive in our or any culture will not stand in His way.
God Changes People Radically
“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 delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:9–10)
When the Thessalonians believed, they had a whole new foundation. They rebuilt their lives upon the love of God in the Lord Jesus Christ, and they had a new family among those who were also loved by God. Although previously they had been committed to the worship of lifeless idols, now they were serving the living God and looking forward to the consummation of His kingdom when Christ would return. We cannot take for granted how radical a change that is! We may think the idea of worshipping images of Greek and Roman gods is silly and not such a hard thing to give up, but what we’re talking about are lifestyles that were utterly transformed.
This dramatic transformation of the Thessalonians is the nature of genuine conversion. A man or woman should not profess to be a follower of Jesus unless his or her life has been changed by Jesus. Why would anyone believe in the power of the Gospel to change, otherwise? The Gospel doesn’t move us from one sort of semireligious experience to a very religious experience. No, when the Gospel changes a heart, God invades that life and makes it something totally new.
A godless culture is no barrier to this life-transforming power. When God chooses in love, He changes those He chooses, so that whether in pagan Thessalonica or the post-Christian West, God’s people are radically different as they become “imitators … of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:6). Even if the world around us grows less Christian in appearance, the power of God will not cease to make His people more like Jesus Christ as they look forward together to His return.
When the Gospel changes a heart, God invades that life and makes it something totally new.
God Inspires Gospel Proclamation
“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere.” (1 Thess. 1:6–8)
Anybody who says that they are genuinely interested in the return of Jesus Christ will be transformed not only in terms of obedience to Christ as Lord but also in the matter of earnest, zealous evangelism. It is that Gospel that shapes the whole life of the church—and that’s exactly what had happened to the Thessalonians. In their imitation of the Lord, they became a picture of the Lord to the world around them and to other believers, and they accompanied the example they set with faithful proclamation of the Gospel. God chose them, He changed, and He used them to proclaim His Gospel so that through them He might choose, change, and use still more.
The purpose of the church is not to bar the doors of the sanctuary against a hostile world. Our greatest impact is when we get out in the world with the message of Jesus Christ. The greatest impact of believers in Thessalonica or anywhere is when they are where God has put them, doing what God has asked of them. Monday through Saturday are not there for us to simply get through so that we can come back on Sunday and try to be good Christians; they are an opportunity for the Word of God to go out, with us as its channels.
In Christ, God has chosen us, and He has chosen to make us useful. Each of us walk in areas and encounter opportunities to which others have no access. We must seize those moments! Not all of us will be preachers and teachers, but anyone can strike up conversation at work or at the park and say, “Have you ever considered whether Jesus Christ is the person He claimed to be?”
The purpose of the church is not to bar the doors of the sanctuary against a hostile world. Our greatest impact is when we get out in the world with the message of Jesus Christ.
In the face of a culture that, more and more, is rejecting the Word of God, such a task may seem daunting. But it is not daunting to God. If we are faithful to preach the Word, we will see its power at work in the lives of our friends and neighbors as the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to perceive it. Our world is not beyond hope. Let us trust that the same God who has chosen us and changed us is working in us now to bring the dynamite of His Word to unbelievers today. We can be like the Thessalonians, because their God is our God too.