Followers of the Lord

October 8, 2017 / No. 3901

Dear Radio Friends,
Did you ever wonder how the Christian faith spread so rapidly through the heathen nations of the world? By the completion of Paul’s life and labors, around 40 years after Pentecost, the gospel had spread from Jerusalem as far west as Rome. Probably even farther than this. Of course, we can ascribe this to the power of the gospel itself. God was behind the spread of salvation to all lands and peoples. He still is today. We can also say that the spread of the gospel can be attributed to the fearless preachers of the gospel sent forth by the early church expressly for this task. But there was more than this. The Bible makes clear that the gospel spread so rapidly also because of the faithful witness of God’s people in their lives. The passage before us today is a clear testimony to this fact: I Thessalonians 1:6-8, “And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: So that ye were examples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.” This is the way the truth concerning Christ and salvation spread so quickly where it did. That ought clearly to teach us our calling today as members of the church of Jesus Christ.
We considered this briefly in our last broadcast. Already in the greeting of this chapter Paul expressed great thankfulness for the labor of this congregation. That labor was “a work of faith, a labor of love, and a patience of hope.” We mentioned that all this referred to the Thessalonians’ witness in the city where she was located. What we consider today, then, is an amplification of what we touched upon in our last broadcast. Today, however, we will also discover just what it was that sounded out. We will consider the faith of these saints—the faith that made them followers of Christ.
I. God-Ward Faith
What was it that these saints in Thessalonica sounded out to the world? Of what were they such good examples? What was it that was spread abroad to all Macedonia and Achaia? The answer is found basically in the last part of verse 8 of our text: “but also in every place,” Paul writes, “your faith to God-ward is spread abroad.” Their faith to God-ward was that which was spread abroad. This phrase makes it very clear what characterized the Thessalonian saints: their faith.
That concept, and everything it entails, stands on the foreground in the Word of God we hear today. Ah yes, faith—a beautiful gift of God bestowed on His people! Too bad the idea or meaning of this gift is mutilated and destroyed by so many today! Because faith is an activity of the child of God, that is, something in which he is active, something he does, many want to define it as a power natural to man—an ability man has in himself. There is no doubt that faith entails actively embracing the cross, consciously taking Jesus to ourselves and confessing that we want Jesus in our lives. And that faith is on the foreground here in our text too. Yet, it is not at all in keeping with Scripture to make of this faith a natural capability that every man has to accept Christ. By saying to fallen, depraved man, “Christ loves you and wants to save you, but you must believe (have faith in Him) first before He can save you,” is a terrible error. This would mean that every person has the natural ability in himself to lay hold on Christ and salvation. It is not really all that difficult, therefore, to do this either. All one must do is surrender himself to Christ, and then Christ will save him. That conscious surrender to Christ by which the sinner lets Christ into his heart so that Christ might now work in him is what many call “faith.” This error is not taught in Scripture. In fact, Scripture condemns this error. Yet it is this error that is behind almost every major religious movement of today: fallen man apart from Christ is not totally depraved, but has a free will that makes him capable of accepting or rejecting Christ and the salvation that Christ wants to give to everyone.
This is the faith, the free-will error would claim, that the saints in Thessalonica were exhibiting. That the saints in Thessalonica were exhibiting faith, the conscious embracing of Christ and salvation, we will not deny. But we will deny that this faith is a natural ability every man has in himself by which he can of his own will and power take to himself Christ and salvation. We definitely will deny that. And we will do so because this denies the fundamental teaching of Scripture concerning faith: Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” Faith is the gift that God bestows on His people at the moment they are saved. This is not something they have before their salvation. Faith is not a natural ability on the part of totally depraved man. It is a gift that God bestows upon His children only after Christ saves them. You see, faith is a powerful force in the child of God. When God saves one of His children, then He takes hold of that person and powerfully and miraculously joins him to Christ. He roots that person in Christ, so that the life of the Savior flows into him and makes him alive too. It is at that moment that the child of God is given (faith is a gift, remember) by God the ability to see and know the things of the kingdom of heaven. Whereas before this point in life he was blinded in heart and soul and understanding, now there is in him a certain God-given ability to discern and understand spiritual things. Once having that power of faith worked in his heart, the saved child of God turns to Christ and consciously embraces Him, he takes Christ as his own, and he confesses that he wants Christ and salvation. That conscious knowledge and confidence of faith, that activity of faith, is what is on the foreground in our text. Paul had come to this city and preached Christ crucified. That preaching was the power God used unto the salvation of these saints. Through the preaching God had worked the power of faith; that is, by it God removed the hardness of heart and blindness of unbelief. And by that faith God bestowed the ability to seek the things of the kingdom of heaven—an ability rooted in and empowered by the Holy Spirit Himself.
As a result, God’s people in Thessalonica gained a knowledge of God. They learned who He was in distinction from their heathen gods, their idols. They learned that their heathen gods were vain—the work of men’s hands, having no power to give life eternal. Because of this knowledge they turned away from these gods and toward Jehovah God—the true and the living God. This is what our text means when it speaks of their faith to God-ward. The faith of these saints turned them away from their idols and to God, or toward the one true God. Having turned to God, these saints in Thessalonica also placed their confidence in Him and in His Son. That also is the conscious activity of faith, the life of a child of God. He knows God and He turns to God and trusts God. And that reveals itself in the life and works of a believer. In all things, he lives for God, and in every circumstance he trusts his God. God and His Son are everything to God’s people. And this reveals itself in their lives.
This was the very faith that now characterized these saints in Thessalonica, a faith that must characterize all of us as God’s children. It is impossible for us to say we have faith unless it reveals itself in a conscious knowledge of and trust in our God. This conscious knowledge of God and trust in Him and in His Son reveals itself as well. How? Verse 6: “ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost.” That these saints in Thessalonica followed the example of Paul and his companions we will consider in a moment. We are more interested at this point in the fact that the faith of these saints led them to be followers of the Lord, that is, of Jesus Christ. Literally, our text says that these saints became “imitators” of Christ. They followed Christ in the sense of imitating Him. And that is but a natural outcome of faith—we begin to follow Christ. Christ becomes our Lord and we His servants to do His will.
Faith entails a godly life—holy living. It is saying “no” to the evil lusts of the flesh and the temptations of this wicked world. Instead we are called to imitate Christ and His holiness. We are called to a life of spiritual separation from the evil of this world. One who has true faith is characterized by this desire. Out of thankfulness for deliverance from the wrath of God, and out of the new life worked in him by the risen Lord, the child of God is committed to a holy life. All fornication and drunkenness, so much a part of heathen life, the child of God hates and flees. Worldly entertainment that may entice him to such sins, the believer avoids.
As we noticed in our last broadcast, this kind of life has its consequences in this world. Following Christ entails that we deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Him. If the world hated Christ, Christ tells us, it will hate us too. And it does. It did for the Thessalonian believers. This is why Paul tells them that they received the word (that is, the Word of salvation) with much affliction and with joy of the Spirit. Because they followed Christ they had to suffer affliction at the hands of the wicked there in their city. Not only was it given to them to believe on Christ but also to suffer for His sake. And yet that suffering they counted all joy. The Holy Spirit worked in them, and they looked upon their affliction as an evident token of the fact that they belonged to Christ. They saw such suffering as a natural result of serving Christ, and this gave to them great joy. Of course it would! It does for us too, does it not? When the world around us mocks us for walking in God’s commandments, we rejoice. We count it joy in the Holy Spirit. Why do we rejoice? Because this is an evident token that we belong to Jesus Christ! He is our Lord and we are different from those given over to the worship of idols. All this is God-ward faith! It is what sets the believer apart from the world.
II. Exemplary Faith
The faith of the believers most assuredly set apart the church in Thessalonica! It did not take long before the members of this congregation became examples for all the believers throughout Macedonia and Achaia. That was a large area, mind you. Macedonia and Achaia together made up the most important part of what was in former times called Greece. Paul was at present laboring in Corinth, which, like Athens, was located in Achaia. Evidently, word had spread of the great faith of the Thessalonian church. The quiet, brave endurance of these saints had been heralded by those traveling to and from Thessalonica. Do not forget that Thessalonica was a large city, through which many people traveled. No doubt news was carried by many who passed through. And in this way these saints in their individual lives had become a source of great encouragement to all God’s people. A joyful church amidst suffering definitely brings great joy to others who believe and must suffer similar trials and opposition.
You know, friends, we must always remember that what we do and what we bear as God’s people is heard of by others. If we are a bad example, others hear of that. Individual believers as well as churches bear a certain reputation. Look at Paul, Silas, and Timothy and their example. Paul tells the believers in Thessalonica: “And ye became followers of us!” The saints there had followed the godly example of faith left by these missionaries. By doing so they had followed Christ Himself. This congregation, in turn, had as a whole become an example for others to follow.
That is the calling of God’s people today as well. As churches we must be a godly example in doctrine and in our stand against sinful living. As individual believers we are to profess and walk in faith. We are called to be an example of faith that is God-ward. We must be an example of faithful following after our Lord. When we are, that in itself speaks volumes to our fellow believers. Living a godly life, pursuing godly things, all this leaves a wonderful and lasting impression on fellow believers. It is an example they can follow and an example in which they will rejoice together with us.
In fact, our faithful example will be more than just an example to fellow believers. It will sound out into every place—whether believing or unbelieving. Of this we read in verse 8, “For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.” The word for “sound out” means to “reverberate.” The idea is that of a bell that is rung as a warning. It rings out in one place, and the sound of it goes out and echoes through the land for all to hear. This also is what happens when the members of the church are characterized by faith toward God. It is a natural result in the life of the church that follows after Christ. Paul points out that the word of the Lord, the word concerning Jesus Christ and salvation in Him, reverberated not only through Macedonia and Achaia, but into every place. This does not mean that all of a sudden everyone in the known world knew about this congregation and her faith. It means that the faith of this church not only came to believers in these regions of the world, but reached to every place in these regions. This congregation was a witness to everyone. The word of Jesus Christ was heard by the heathen too. So much so, Paul says, that he and Silas and Timothy did not have to go everywhere to spread the word of the gospel, for it was already being spread by this congregation—and that by means of her example.
It is evident from the passage we consider, of course, that this witness was not accomplished because the members of this church worked hard, to use modern terminology, to be mission-minded. This congregation was not sending out all kinds of her members in order to sound out the gospel. Her members did not feel the call (as so many today like to speak of themselves) to go out and do great things for the Lord. They did not leave their children at home and go out and become missionaries for the Lord in order to gain this witness. That was the church’s task—to send out laborers to preach the gospel to others. These saints were like that bell, which remains in one place, yet the sound of which reverberates through the land for all to hear. They were a witness—an open and active witness in their own city. They spoke the Word of the Lord to others. They were not ashamed of the gospel in their lives. They talked of it at home, in the workplace, and wherever they traveled. Perhaps, there may even have been some saints who traveled for their work. They took their faith toward God with them. Whatever the case, even in the face of fierce opposition they could not keep their mouths shut. And that is how the gospel spread round about from this congregation to far-reaching areas. Obviously, the Lord was using the witness of these saints in a mighty way.
That too speaks to us of the witness of believers today. Our witness to others does not have to be some great and noble deed for the Lord. It entails speaking of our faith to others right where God has placed us: in the home, at the workplace, with whomever we visit. It entails a godly example to others to show them that we walk according to the gospel of grace. Then the Word of the Lord will sound out from the corridors of the faithful church. Our community and all those round about will hear of us. They will see our example and enthusiasm, and the result will be that the sound of the gospel will ring forth through the land.
III. Spreading Faith
Such faith will spread. This is how the church of the early new dispensation grew so rapidly, by the witness of God’s people wherever God had led them to live. So much so was this true that churches sprang up everywhere in Asia Minor, North Africa, Greece, Italy, and beyond. Already it had spread through the areas of Macedonia and Achaia. The gospel was going out. It was spreading. God was using the faithful witness and example of His saints to spread His word. We indeed ought to support financially and with our prayers the mission work of the church in her calling to preach the gospel in foreign lands. That is the calling of the church. But this does not diminish the calling of the congregation and of us as individuals to be busy where we live in our witness to others. It ought not to be a forced witness. It need only be a witness of godly living and unashamed conversation of our faith. When this characterizes the church of Christ, the gospel will sound out into all the earth. And others will be followers of the Lord, even as we. May God strengthen us in that calling.