When I was first considering coming to serve at MEC, I sent Rog a facebook invitation, so I could look at his page and find out a little more about him. But he didn’t accept it, and it wasn’t till 6 months later when I started here, that he told me he wasn’t sure how to get back into his account. So I actually had to go into his account, and from there, I accepted my own friend request. That’s always left me feeling a little unsure about my relationships with Rog, would he have accepted my friend request if he knew how, I’ll never know, I’ll always feel a little insecure about that!
Obviously I’m just kidding, but to be honest, I have sometimes felt uncertain about my relationship with God. Have you? Have you ever wondered, does God really love me? Or you read a passage like this where it mentions God choosing people and you wonder, has God chosen me? Am I really a Christian? How do I know whether I am really a Christian or not?
There are often two extreme in the way people approach this question. In their lives. One extreme is demonstrated by JD Greear, in his helpful book about assurance, called Stop asking Jesus into your heart, He says he was very young, about 4 when he first understood about Jesus death on the cross, and prayed asking Jesus to forgive him. He considered himself to be a Christian for about 10 years, until as a teenager, his Sunday school teacher was speaking one day from Matthew 7 where Jesus talks about how many people might call him Lord, but they aren’t really his followers. JD Greear started to got worried about whether he really was a Christian, maybe he hadn’t properly repented at 4, maybe he needed to pray again and ask God to forgive him. So he did. This time he thought he really must be a Christian, until a little later when he again began to have doubts. He said he prayed lots of times to become a Christian he travelled to various churches he felt like he became a Christian in every denomination he visited. He seemed to be living like a Christian, but never felt quite sure.
At the other extreme, I met a man who prayed a prayer once, and been told that makes him a Christian, but in the years since then, it seemed he’d never shown any obvious evidence of loving Jesus, or obeying his word, or loving his people, yet he said he was sure he was a Christian because someone told him because you prayed this prayer you are a Christian, as though becoming a Christian is happens by just saying a magic formula!
So those are two extremes – you act like a Christian, but you sometimes doubt whether you are one, or you don’t act anything like a Christian but you feel sure you are one, and there’s obviously a range in between. How can we know if we are Christians? Paul speaks so confidently about this church, he spends most of this chapter plus the next two thanking God for them. Look what he says in v4: We know brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you. He speaks so confidently, how does he know? As we look at Thessalonians 1, let’s notice five marks of a genuine Christian.
1. Active Faith, love and hope in Jesus (v2-3)
v1 tells us Paul, Silas and Timothy wrote this letter. They first came to Thessalonica around AD 50. (see map). Today in that place is Greece’s second largest city. But in AD50, it was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, with a population of around 100,000. We can trace the journey of this group up to this point on this map:a) Paul and Silas leave Antioch (Acts 15:40) b) Paul and Silas travel to Lystra where Timothy joins them (Acts 16:1-3) c) In Troas Paul has a vision of a man begging him ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’ (Acts 16:9-10) d) Paul and his companions go to Philippi in Macedonia (Acts 16:11-12) e) Paul, Silas and Timothy arrive in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1)
In Thessalonica they share the gospel of Jesus, going first to the Jews: he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. (Acts 17:2-3). Many Jews had a problem with the idea of a Messiah who had to die, but Paul showed them Jesus had to die to bring forgiveness, and his resurrection proved who he was. The gospel had a significant impact there, a number of people became Christians, a new church is formed by the gospel where there had never been a church previously. The church faced opposition right from the beginning, and Paul and his companions were asked to leave. Now a year or more later they write to that young church, and speak both of what they saw at the time and what they have heard from others since. The first thing they thank God for in v3 is the Thessalonians, faith, love and hope.
Paul refers to these three elsewhere: now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13). In that passage, he mentions love last, he’s emphasising that as important as it is to have faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection and a certain hope in his return, whether we really have them will show in our love for God and others. In Colossians 1, it’s hope that appears last: the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel (Colossians 1:5). Here in 1 Thessalonians, which is last? Look at v3 It’s hope again isn’t it? We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Hope is a key theme in this letter. At the end of every chapter in this letter, there is reference to the return of Jesus. I don’t know how often you think about the return of Jesus, but in the coming weeks we’ll see Paul challenging us to be thinking more about it, he sees hope as very practical.
As he mentions these three: faith, love and hope he emphasises that they are all, active. A genuine Christian will be showing these characteristics in their actions, in their work, labour and endurance.
I had a look at the church rosters on the members section of our website, and I saw that this morning there are almost 40 different roles that people are rostered on to serve in, and at night there are another 20. On top of that there are rosters for things during the week like home groups and youth programs, not to mention the many things people do that aren’t rostered. What would keep you going serving regularly on a role, like Sunday school or packup or set up that might not often be noticed? It could be guilt, or obligation, you do it because you have to do it. But usually if that’s your motivation it doesn’t last long. Often the motivation is faith or love. It’s your faith in Jesus that motivates you to want to teach children about Jesus, or motivates you to get here early to set up chairs to help God’s people gather to sing and pray and hear his word. It’s your love for God and his people that motivates you to welcome people at the door, or help out with the morning tea/supper roster. Your faith produces work, your love prompts labour. What keeps you serving for years in a ministry where you may not see much fruit. You teach Scripture or Sunday school year after year, but you never really know what eventually happens to the kids? It’s hope that can inspire endurance as you look forward to Jesus’ return and seeing what God has done in lives where you’ve sown the word.
2. Gospel and Spirit power at work (v4-6)
Look at v4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you. How does he know? v5 because our gospel came to you, Paul’s certainty is because of the gospel of Jesus. He knows the gospel is true – Jesus did die, he did rise again. This gospel of God is powerful, when we realise that we can never rescue ourselves, but that in Jesus God has done all that is needed for us to be rescued, it changes us.
The gospel came to the Thessalonians not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and deep conviction. The gospel came with words, it can’t come without words, but it is God’s word, and it came with the power of His Spirit. We know Paul wasn’t an impressive looking person, and wasn’t necessarily an impressive speaker, he didn’t rely on some of the speaking methods popular in his day. But when he spoke God’s word, God spoke powerfully through him. He spoke with deep conviction, as God’s Spirit worked through him.
God’s Spirit worked powerfully in Paul, but also in his hearers, v6 says you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. The Thessalonians experienced opposition from the very beginning. It wasn’t easy to become a Christian in a setting where some actively opposed the gospel, yet they welcomed the message with joy, because God’s Spirit was powerfully working in them.
One Mark of a true Christian is that you’ll see God’s gospel and his Spirit working powerfully in you. It may not always seem spectacular, but it will be producing real change, like joy in the midst of suffering. That doesn’t mean you won’t grieve or feel pain, you’ll enjoy hardship, but even in the most difficult and painful times God’s gospel and Spirit provide you with deep resources that will help you endure with hope and even joy.
3. Impacting others with the gospel (v7-8)
You’ve probably heard the saying, that you’ll never find the perfect church, and if you do don’t join it, because you’ll spoil it. But apparently there is a place called the perfect church. Can you guess which country it’s in? It’s in America, in Atlanta Georgia:
It’s not a great name to give your church is it? because you’ll never live up to your name. Everyone’s going to eventually feel let down eventually. Even if they think it’s great at first they’re eventually going to realise – this church is far from perfect.
Paul doesn’t use the word-perfect to describe the Thessalonian church, but he does use the word model v7 You became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. V8 the Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere. Do you see two ways this church is having an impact? One is through their actions, as they live for Jesus even through difficult suffering, they are becoming a model to others. The second is through the words of the gospel, they spoke the Lord’s message in words, it rang out from them.
It wasn’t necessarily a huge church, but it was having a big impact through the lives and the words of the believers. It makes us think about how much potential for impact there is in our church by God’s grace. You’ll know people who the person next to you doesn’t know, or that I don’t know, in your workplace or community groups or neighbourhood, you have opportunities to be a model, as you live for Jesus even in difficulties, and for the Lord’s message to ring out from you.
That doesn’t mean donging people on the head with the gospel, we aim to speak with gentleness and respect. We won’t all speak in the same way, but we can all seek to grow in how we share with others.
I’m not suggesting that if you’re not having a huge impact on others then you can’t be a real Christian, but are you having any impact? Do your friends or family at least know you are a Christian? If friends now other things that you love or are passionate about, but don’t know you love Jesus, then it could be worth asking whether you really love Jesus more than those other things.
4. Genuine turning and serving (v9)
Not long after Paul’s time in Thessalonica, he visited Athens, another Macedonian city. We read that: While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16). People in Athens and Thessalonica followed various idols, like the ancient Greek and Roman gods as well as a variety of others. Paul is distressed as he sees this because idols both dishonour the true God, and enslave people. It’s tragic to see people giving themselves to worship an object made of wood or stone or metal.
The Bible warns we can become enslaved to other types of idols. I heard of a Christian lady whose boss tried to seduce her at work. She said she was tempted, not because she found the boss attractive, but because her tendency was to please other people, to comply with those over her. Obviously what the boss was doing was wrong, he was abusing a position of power, perhaps his idol was power, or lust, but for the lady, the idol was pleasing others. It’s a very common idol. When we worship or love or trust or fear anything more than God, it becomes an idol. We show we’re enslaved to idolatry when we love some pleasure more than God, or trust money more than God, or fear people more than God.
The gospel can free us from our slavery to idolatry. Look what Paul says about the Thessalonians: V9 They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, The gospel gave power to turn from idols. The lady I mentioned earlier was saved from being seduced as she recognised her idol of pleasing people, and with God’s help turned from it.
I traded a starring role in the story of me for a tiny role in the story of Jesus—it’s the best trade I’ve ever made.” – Sammy Adebiyi
One of the marks of a true Christian, will be this genuine turning from idols, to serve the true and living God.
5. Hope-filled waiting (v10)
I mentioned earlier that every chapter in Thessalonians has a reference to Jesus’ return at the end of it. We see that chapter 1, which finishes in v10 describing a Christian, as someone who is waiting for God’s Son from heaven. Not many of us enjoy waiting do we? If you’re at the supermarket and your trolley is full what do you do? You look along to see which queue is going to be the quickest checkout to get you out, you don’t want to wait around, yet much of the Christian life is spent waiting for Jesus to return, as we work, and labour and endure.
Recently Roger’s daughter told me something interesting about Rog. To understand it, you need to know if you’re newer to MEC that I try to have some fun teasing Rog about his age. Even though we were technically born in the same year, I point out that our births were separated by a generation marking event – the moon landing. Rog was born before that, he belongs to the pre moon landing generation, I belong to the younger generation born well after that.
Anyway, Roger’s daughter likes to watch Horrible Histories which is a fun history show for younger people, and Rog likes to watch it too, because he likes history as you know. In the latest series of Horrible Histories, they were doing some modern history, from the twentieth century, and in one episode they featured the moon landing. Do you see what that means? Rog is now old enough to be on Horrible Histories! You should get to know this man he doesn’t just love history, he is living history! Good things come to those who wait!
Of course Christians wait for something far more significant, v10 wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Over the last week, we’ve been very conscious of and praying for the fire fighters who do such an amazing job, often risking their own lives to save people and property. Jesus is a greater rescuer, who saves us from an even greater danger, at a much greater cost. He endured God’s wrath, so we can be rescued from it.
Many modern people don’t like this idea of a God whose wrath is coming, yet we all long for ultimate justice. In a world where there is so much injustice this phrase ‘the coming wrath’ reminds us of God’s coming justice. Thankfully, it also reminds us of God’s grace, Jesus is able to rescue us from the coming wrath.
There’s a story you may have seen that often goes around the internet, that says after a great bushfire, a park ranger went in to see the devastation, and one of the things he saw was the charred remains of a bird that had been completely blackened by the fire. He moved the bird slightly with a stick and when he did, two little chicks ran out from underneath. The mother bird had saved these chicks who were unable to flee the fire by sacrificing herself, taking the scorch herself.
As far as I now, there’s no truth to that story, but the fake story of the bird illustrates the true story of the cross. Jesus saves his people, by taking on himself the wrath they deserve. He didn’t stay dead, he rose, proving his death was effective.
If you’re struggling with doubts about whether you are a Christian, the place where we can gain assurance is in the death and resurrection of Jesus. If you were at the Gospel Blues Sunday last weekend you might have noticed that Jim, the lead guitarist, had a Greek word written on his arm, τετέλεσται , it’s the word Jesus spoke on the cross before he died, it is finished, it is completed. In Jesus the work of salvation has been finished. You can’t add to what God has done for you in Jesus, he has done all that is necessary.
It’s good to sometimes look at your life, and ask: are there signs that I’m really trusting the gospel of Jesus? Can you see active, faith, love and hope? Can you see the power of the gospel and the Spirit changing you? Is your life impacting others for the gospel? Are you genuinely turning from idols and serving God? Can you see hope-filled waiting for Jesus return? If there’s no life change, you may not yet be trusting the gospel. Jesus invites you to turn to him now, to come to him. If there is change, then thank God, that’s what Paul’s doing here, he’s thanking God as he recognises God’s work. But while changes can be encouraging, ultimately our assurance is based not on what we are doing, but resting in what God has done in Jesus. We put our trust in God, and we wait for his Son, from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 27 October 2013. Audio here