What Can God Do With A Young, Diverse, Untrained Church?
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, the church was still young and small. It was incredibly diverse, and dirt poor. It seems like Paul would be writing to teach them, or correct them, or maybe to clear up some of the rumors he’d been hearing about what they’d been doing. But we see something different in the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians.
First, Paul says in verse 1 that this church is “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We know from all over the Bible that Jesus unites us to God. Like how Jesus tells his followers in John 14: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will also know my Father. So when Paul says that this church is in God the Father, it means that they must be in Jesus Christ, because Jesus is the way that we get to be united to God. Tracking with me? That’s the first characteristic of this church: they’re UNITED TOGETHER IN CHRIST.
They didn’t come together because they liked the same style of worship music, or had the same ethnic background, or were at the same life stage, the thing that united them was what they all believed about Jesus. And that commonality allowed other aspects of diversity to flourish. The people in this church could be radically different and that was ok because they shared Jesus.
We desperately want this to be true in our church. We want to see Jesus bring together a radically diverse people that reflects our community. We wanna see God save and bring together Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Hispanic, and Caucasians that maybe even don’t speak each other’s language very well. We wanna see God save and bring together people at different life stages, 22% of our community is over 60! We want God to save and bring together people from different socio-economic backgrounds and actually love each other. A church filled with people who are united in Jesus is gonna be beautifully diverse because the one thing that unites them is Jesus. That’ll be a church filled with people who aggressively welcome others into their lives who are radically different.Because there’s a bond that’s stronger than those things that typically divide us.
If you see people in our church who are totally different from you, that’s a good thing. Lean into that. Welcome them into your life and loving go into theirs. Jesus died to bring unity to radically diverse people.
Now check out verse 2: “We always thank God for all of you, making mention of you constantly in our prayers. We recall, in the presence of our God and Father, your work produced by faith, your labor motivated by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.“
Secondly, the people in this church are WORKING TOGETHER FOR JESUS. Did you see those words: work, labor, and endurance. This church is getting stuff done for Jesus. But notice how Paul says it: they’re doing work, yes, but it’s work produced by faith. They’re laboring, but the motivation for that labor is love. They’re enduring when it’s difficult, because of the hope that they have. This church is working really hard together because of what they’ve already experienced. They weren’t working to earn anything from God, or to put God in their debt so that God would bless them, they were working because they had ALREADY been blessed by God.
That means that they understood the gospel well. Look at what they understood in Titus 3: “[God] saved us —not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy — through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out his Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that, having been justified by his grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. This saying is trustworthy. I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed God might be careful to devote themselves to good works.” They understood that good works didn’t save them, but that SINCE they’ve been justified by God through Jesus, since JESUS saved them, they’re now free spend the rest of their lives doing good works; working hard to live in a way that pleases God and displays his beauty in the world. So this was a church that was working, not just content to meet for a few hours every Sunday.
Check out verse 4: “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full assurance.“ This church UNDERSTOOD THEIR IDENTITY. Check out what Paul says about them: loved by God, and he has chosen you. This church knew they were LOVED and CHOSEN TOGETHER. Those are crucially linked. We aren’t just loved by God, and we aren’t just chosen by God, we’re loved and chosen. Because here’s the thing guys, none of us are lovable enough for God to love us UNLESS he chooses to love us. And it’s not good news that God chooses us unless he’s chosen us IN ORDER TO love us.
I think for many people, the idea that we’re chosen doesn’t sound good. Maybe it would sound better for you to think that YOU chose God. Like you went to the car dealership of faith and did come comparative shopping: This religion is going to cost me too much, this one might break down if I drive it for a while, I know a lady who drives that and I don’t want it. could I just not have a car and be an atheist? No I should get a car, alright, I chose the God of the Bible. I choose Jesus! Maybe it feels better to think that’s how it went down. But guys it misses the reality of who the Bible says we were before God chose us. We were orphans, lost, without a family.
Ephesians 2 paints the clearest picture of who someone is before they put their faith in Jesus: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world“…we were dead in our trespasses and sins. Dead. Dead people don’t make choices. They’re dead. But Ephesians 2 goes on: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses.” You are saved by grace! God made us alive, God chose us, and that choice is what binds him to loving us, even when we struggle and still resist him. It’s what guarantees that you can never lose God’s love for you, because he chose you. He’s not like a car that’ll break down or you’ll get sick of because you made a bad choice.
He chose YOU. There’s so much security in that truth.
That’s our identity now together: Chosen, loved, children of God. That’s powerful. And this church experienced it, because Paul said that this gospel, this good news, didn’t just come in word “but also in power.” It wasn’t just a truth for them to believe like a math equation, but a gloriously powerful life-changing experience for them to understand their new identity.
Which is the only explanation for the next thing we see. Look at the rest of verse 5: “You know how we lived among you for your benefit, and you yourselves became imitators of us and of the Lord when, in spite of severe persecution, you welcomed the message with joy from the Holy Spirit.” When we know our identity, it allows us to JOYFULLY SUFFER TOGETHER. This very small, just a few months old church has experienced and is continuing to experience severe persecution. Paul calls it severe. This church that embraced the gospel of Jesus, started to bring change to their community, so the people started to reject and even persecute this church. That’s exactly what happened to Jesus, it’s what happened to his disciples that Jesus sent out, and now it’s what happens to churches who follow Jesus.
You know why I don’t have washboard abs? Some of you are deeply shocked right now, but I honestly don’t have Ryan Gosling abs. I have Homer Simpson abs. I don’t because when I go to the gym and start to suffer to get those abs, I give up. It’s just not worth it to me, I hate it, it’s just torture. As much as I want abs, I don’t want them THAT bad.
But notice that it says that in spite of this severe persecution, the Holy Spirit gifted them with joy. Guys that’s how you can know the gospel has taken root deep down in your life. Do you still have joy, even with you’re suffering because you follow Jesus?
Is the Holy Spirit giving you joy even when you’re going through difficult times so that you stick close to Jesus? It doesn’t mean that we love suffering, but it means that we deeply know that we are chosen and loved, so we could lose everything else but as long as we’re in God’s family we’ll still have joy.
Now, look what their suffering together led to in verse 7: “As a result, you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. For the word of the Lord rang out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place that your faith in God has gone out.” The way they lived together as a church and suffered together led to them being ON MISSION TOGETHER. Guys God has good reasons that not only individuals but whole churches may go through trials or suffering. Because look how everybody’s talking about the joy of the people in this church. As a result of their joy in spite of persecution, people from ALL over Greece were talking about them.
Especially because this church, that was being severely persecuted, was unbelievably generous. We know that this area of the world at the time wasn’t filled with wealthy people, but pretty poor people. So there probably wasn’t a ton of money in this church. But even still, look at what Paul says about them in 2 Corinthians: “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that was given to the churches of Macedonia: During a severe trial brought about by affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. I can testify that, according to their ability and even beyond their ability, of their own accord, they begged us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in the ministry to the saints.” They were incredibly poor, but when they heard of a need, they gave away whatever they had. Their joy in Jesus led to their generosity. They didn’t give because it was a tax write off, or to pay God for their past sins, or because it was just the right thing to do, they gave because they knew the gospel. They knew and believed it so deeply, that they weren’t concerned about preserving their own money. And that generosity rang out from them throughout their entire country.
What was ringing out from this church was SO powerful, that look what Paul says at the end of verse 8: “Therefore, we don’t need to say anything.” PAUL! The greatest church planter ever didn’t need to say anything when he came into a town where people knew the reputation of this church. What a powerful reputation they had.
We probably read the exact reputation in verse 9: “for they themselves report what kind of reception we had from you: 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.”
Check out those three things: They turned from idols, to serve God, waiting on Jesus’ return. Scholars look at the way Paul wrote these words in Greek and they’re not really like the way he writes, so they think this is literally what he heard from others. This is the word on the street about this church. So people in their community knew these last two things about this church:
They have NEW LIFE TOGETHER. They’ve given up their idols, the things they used to live for that aren’t God, they gave those up. Now they serve God. And they’re waiting on Jesus to return and rescue them. This church had a new life together of killing sin and serving God. Their lives had so radically changed that everyone could tell that the people in this church were different. They weren’t trying to blend in, their faith in Jesus led to them standing out and being known.
It’s amazing how a new, small, poor, uneducated church could have an incredibly powerful impact on it’s community. We think that we’ll get there when we’re big, have a lot of money, have deeply trained seminary grads teaching Hebrew and about infralapsarianism in our church. Maybe you think that in your life. That God can’t use you to reach your friends, family, neighbors because you’re new, small, poor, don’t know a lot about the Bible yet. You’re in the exact same place as all of the Thessalonians.
But they knew the gospel. Then knew Jesus. That was the power of their lives and their church.
We’re called to live together in Christ so that we will have the same reputation so people can see the beauty of Jesus through our gospel-centered lives together. People all around us don’t know the God who loves them and wants to give them joy and life.
Let’s be this kind of church together.