Dear Radio Friends,
Christian greetings to you, the friends of the RWH. It is good to be with you again for the next several months sharing the Word of God. During the time I am with you, I’ve chosen to speak on a number of verses out of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. We begin with the first four verses of this epistle, in which Paul sends his greetings to this church. They read:
Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father; Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.”
Through Paul’s faithful labors during his second mission journey, God planted a church in the city of Thessalonica. This city was an important seaport located on the Aegean Sea in the large region of Greece known as Macedonia. Paul had already labored in the neighboring city of Philippi establishing a church there. He now set his sights on Thessalonica because of its size and influence. After preaching three weeks in the synagogue there, Paul persuaded a few Jews of the gospel. But during this time mainly proselytes and a large number of Greeks were brought to faith. Paul had labored in this city for several months when the unbelieving Jews gathered together a mob of low life (or lewd) fellows to set the city in an uproar. This mob attacked the house of Jason, where Paul was staying, but Paul and Silas, being warned earlier, had escaped the city by night.
Paul labored for a short time in a small nearby city named Berea, but was again forced to leave and flee for his life to Athens. From Athens Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to minister to the saints in need there. Evidently, the few saints in Thessalonica were suffering persecution for the sake of Christ. While Timothy returned to Thessalonica, Paul sailed to Corinth. Both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church were written while he labored in Corinth.
From verse 1 we learn Paul writes this letter on behalf of himself, Silvanus (which is another name for Silas), and Timothy. In the letter, the apostle Paul encourages and instructs these saints concerning their life and work in Thessalonica. As I mentioned, in the next several weeks we want to consider this first letter of Paul to the church there. It has many practical things to say to the church today. That begins already with the words of greeting we have before us. Already we find here a deep love for the church that ought to characterize every believer.
THANKS FOR THE CHURCH
I. The Elect Church
The opening verses of this letter may seem at first glance to be no more than a simple greeting. Paul addresses the church of Thessalonica on behalf of himself, Silas, and Timothy. He pronounces a blessing on the church, and then moves along. But this greeting contains a very plain and simple truth. That truth centers in the term “church” itself. We do well to consider that truth in order that we may the more deeply appreciate membership in the church. You see, the term “church” means literally “called out.” When used in the secular sense, this term denotes the calling out of the citizens of a kingdom into an assembly in order to conduct the affairs of state. Paul uses this term, however, in a highly spiritual sense. He uses it to describe the calling God’s elect people receive from God by which they are called out of this world of darkness, and by which they are called into the assembly of the citizens of God’s kingdom. Let’s reflect on that a moment, because that has much to do with you and me, personally. Those who are members of the body of Christ in this world have been called. God powerfully and effectually called them.
Again, we must understand fully the common plight of all mankind due to the fall of our first parents in Paradise. It was then that the whole human race was plunged into the captivity and guilt of sin. As comprehended in Adam our head, all the world has become guilty before God and therefore stands under one common condemnation. All are worthy of death. As children of our father Adam the whole human race, every child born into this world, is conceived and born in sin and trespasses. We are in bondage to sin and Satan. Unbelief has blinded our eyes. Fallen man hates God, refuses to believe on Jesus Christ, and tramples underfoot the ten commandments of our God. Into this world of darkness and unbelief everyone is born. No one escapes this condemnation. No one escapes the total corruption of sin. But by God’s grace some were given by God to hear a call. It was the call of God. Oh, it is a call that more than definitely goes out into all the world. It is a call that is sent forth through all the nations commanding all men to turn from sin and unbelief and unto the living God. That call of God goes out in the preaching of the gospel. When the Scriptures are proclaimed in all their purity, then God is calling. And that objective call of God goes out to all who hear that preaching. That call says to everyone who hears: “repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved!”
Now, obviously that call is not an offer, that is, a well-meant offer on the part of God asking men to believe. It does not express a desire on the part of God to save every man. It does not place salvation into the hands of man. That call is the command of God to repent and believe. It is the demand that God places before the hearts of all men in order that no one who hears the preaching has an excuse not to believe. But that call of God in the preaching goes out to accomplish one design and purpose of God: the salvation of His people. That objective call of God is accompanied by the internal call of God by His Spirit in the hearts of some. That is why we can say the call of God is powerful and effectual—it accomplishes that for which God intends it. When the call of God goes out, there are certain people in whom God works by His Spirit. These hear that command of the gospel and they are moved by God’s grace to faith and repentance. This all-powerful call of God through the gospel is what saves us, and by means of that salvation we are grafted into the church of Jesus Christ in this world.
God has called us, first of all, out of this world of darkness and unbelief. That was not by any act of ours. We were lost—totally lost in the corruption of sin. But God called us out of that darkness of unbelief. By God’s grace He has made us to see our sin and our need for the cross of Jesus Christ. He removed from us the blindness of unbelief and forgave us the guilt of our sin. He called us out of this wicked world. And He called us into the assembly of the church, the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. This is what Paul writes concerning the Thessalonian church in verse one of our text. Notice: “unto the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s people are called out of sin in order to be in Christ and in God. That is a unique privilege that God gives only to a few out of this world of sin and darkness. To these few God gives the blessing of being one with Him and His Son, standing together in this world as one body—the body of Christ. Christ the head, we His members receiving all the benefits and blessings of salvation that are found in Jesus Christ alone. We are those who belong to that assembly of God’s people. We have been called unto faith and life. We have received the forgiveness of sins, deliverance from the corruption of this world, and the promise of life eternal. We belong to God’s covenant, that is, we are made to share in the blessing of His fellowship and favor.
Now, all this is the greatest reason for us to give thanks to God for what He has done in our lives. What a unique privilege is ours to belong to the church—to this assembly of God’s people in this world! It ought to make us look at membership in the church with great gratitude! God has placed us here! And He has done so on the basis of election! On the basis of election we have been called out of this world. Paul writes, “We give thanks to God always for you” (then skip to v. 4) “knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.” God did not call His people out of this world of darkness because they deserved it any more than anyone else. Not at all! Believers are not members of Christ’s church because they had something special in them by which they were able to accept some offered salvation by God. Then they would have earned their place in Christ’s church. Believers are members of Christ’s church because God has sovereignly chosen them to be a people unto Himself. From all eternity God chose a people unto Himself—before time began. They are numbered among the assembly of the elect in life eternal. That number of elect God has been calling out of this world since time began, and will until all the elect are gathered in. The church, then, is made up of the elect of God whom He calls to be a part of His visible church and kingdom in this world.
By the way, take note that the apostle Paul addresses the entire Thessalonian congregation as the elect, brethren beloved of God. In this letter Paul does not divide the congregation in two between elect and reprobate and then say, “I am writing this letter only to those of you in the congregation who are elect.” No, no. Paul addresses this congregation in Thessalonica as a whole, as a body, organically. He is fully aware that they are not all Israel that are of Israel. There are verses in these two letters that indicate that Paul is aware that there are unbelievers in this congregation too. Nevertheless, Paul speaks to this elect body of Jesus Christ, and he calls them brethren, beloved of God. So must every preacher address his congregation.
II. Unceasing Thankfulness
But there is more for which Paul gave thanks to God as regards the Thessalonian church. There are three things mentioned in verse 3 that Paul remembers and for which he gives thanks: her work of faith, her labor of love, and her patience of hope. Three beautiful phrases that describe the life of this congregation.
There will be sins and weaknesses that Paul addresses in this letter to the church. But he wants this congregation to know immediately that there are definitely commendable qualities about her as a congregation. There is, first of all, her work of faith. The term “work” here refers to toil, hard labor. The term calls to mind one who sweats and strains to accomplish his task. This labor or work of the Thessalonians, however, was a labor of faith, i.e., a steady, strenuous labor in the gospel—the truth as she was given it. In other words, this congregation was busy in her witness of the faith given her by Paul. Her members labored in the gospel, by witnessing to others, speaking of the wonderful truths of salvation. The elders fought to maintain the faith in spite of those who opposed. This church labored with the zeal of those who were recently converted.
But there were not-so-pleasant consequences to her toil of love—the saints were persecuted for their faith. And for that reason, Paul commends this congregation for her labor of love as well. Literally, this phrase should read, “your weariness of love.” Unceasingly these saints labored in this city. Repeatedly they met with mockery and opposition. So much so that the saints had grown weary. Yet, they had continued. Why? Because they loved the gospel! They loved God, they loved His Son who had died to deliver them from sin. They loved the church of which they were a member. Because of this love they labored though often weary with their struggles.
For this reason, too, Paul adds the third phrase: “patience of hope.” “Patience” here means “endurance” or “perseverance.” And the idea expressed here is: the saints were enduring all things because of the hope that was in them. Paul had preached to them of the second coming of Jesus Christ. He had warned them that Christ was coming soon. And in that hope, they waited for and longed for the coming of Christ. That was their hope. And in that hope, they endured, they were patient and bore the afflictions that came upon them for the gospel’s sake. So, Paul commends them for all this.
Then Paul gives these saints the greatest encouragement when in verse 2 he writes that he, Silas, and Timothy thank God for them, making mention of them every time they pray. Notice how often this thanks is given: “always” and “without ceasing.” Paul remembers unceasingly the labors of this church, he knows her election, and for this reason he constantly gives thanks to God for her in his prayers. Paul recognizes the work of God in the midst of His people in this congregation. He thanks God—not this church, mind you, but God—for what God works through her members. That is the thanks Paul brings—not because this congregation is performing work above her duty to perform. He gives God thanks exactly because she was doing the work of those who are called out.
Two questions arise in this connection. First, do the works of the Thessalonian church characterize us in the churches where we are members? As we said, her work was not a unique labor. It was exactly the labor the church is called to do. It was done by her members with zealousness. Does that same zeal characterize us? Will we as individual members of the church be remembered for our work of faith? Not only the elders and minister—although they too must be zealous in their labors in the gospel. But are we as members zealous in those labors? Do we live a godly life and then speak to those who are about us of the salvation we have received in Christ? Do we wear our faith for others to see it? Are we willing as saints in the church of Thessalonica to suffer mockery and opposition because of our deep love for the gospel? How much do we love the truth the church of Christ is called to maintain? How much do we love our place in the church? And then too, how patient are we in hope? Do we look for and long for the coming of Jesus Christ? If all these things characterize us, then there is reason to rejoice, because we are living, vibrant members of the church! But to the degree that these lack in the church, and in our lives, to that same degree there is reason for sadness. Certainly, then, we would not be thankworthy before God. Let the labors of the Thessalonian church characterize us, fellow believers.
That brings us to a second question: how committed are we to the church of Jesus Christ? Do we join that church that exhibits the marks of the true church of Christ? Then are we good, faithful members of that church? Whereas the Thessalonian saints joined the church out of faith and a zeal for the gospel, today many are leaving the church as if membership in the church is not necessary. We will never be able to thank God for the church if we are not committed members of the church. God’s saints have been called out of the world of darkness and into the church of Jesus Christ. Paul addresses the members of the church in Thessalonica as “brethren, beloved of God.” These members were united to Christ by a true and living faith. They were God’s elect, His chosen ones. They were in God the Father and in His Son. That says everything about the need to be members of a faithful church of Christ in this world. Then we have reason to give God thanks!
So, we ask ourselves the question: how thankful am I for the church? We must always, unceasingly in our prayers remember the church where God has chosen to place us. And when we pray we must ask God for thankful hearts.
III. A Pronounced Blessing
As is always the case, Paul begins his letters by pronouncing a blessing on the church. He does in the verse we consider too. But that blessing would not be given to an unfaithful church with spiritually lazy and lethargic members. It is pronounced on the church that is zealous for the truth of God’s Word and therefore for the cause of Christ in this world. The Thessalonian church received it. “Grace be unto you and peace, from God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” What a beautiful blessing to hear from God’s ambassador each Sunday when he addresses his congregation. This is a sincere and fervent request that God’s grace, favor, and blessing, and God’s peace, the calm reassurance of heart and soul, be upon us as God’s people. It is only then that we are truly blessed and happy.
But not only is this a desire of the ambassador who pronounces the blessing. When such a blessing is given to the faithful church by the mouth of her ambassador, then that church is truly blessed with God’s grace and peace. And that in the way of her faithfulness. We hear God’s blessing on us. May that blessing of God incite us to greater thanks for our election and salvation. And may this, in turn, incite us to give thanks for the church.