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Faith That Sets an Example
Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of November 10, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: I Thessalonians 1: 2-10
Key Verse: I Thessalonians 1: 7-8a
You became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.
Geographical and other background information for text
The Thessalonian letters are widely believed to be among the first writings of the New Testament. You can read of Paul’s visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17. The city is located approximately 100 miles west of Philippi. Thessalonica was strategically located for commerce and evangelism. From the city you could travel east into the Roman Empire or west toward Europe where possibilities for church expansion awaited. If Christianity could gain a foothold in Thessalonica and the surrounding area, the faith could explode with new converts in the west. Both land and sea routes met in Thessalonica, making it a bustling busy city of commerce. As cited in the previous lesson, Paul employed his customary methodology for creating a new church in a city or town. He began by entering the local synagogue and befriending his Jewish brothers and sisters. He then won some to Christ. However, he was always intentional in reaching out to the Gentile population, whether through participation in the tent-making guild or simply forming friendships and relationships. When possible, Paul preached in the public arena. Eventually, someone would open their home and the church would begin. Paul would remain until the church was rooted in the faith and leaders were developed to continue the ministry before he moved to the next area to evangelize. Though the Jewish people and the Gentile population shared life in the city and participated in commerce, the Jewish people still recognized a distinction between themselves and the Gentiles, especially regarding their faith. The Jewish Christian leaders were not always open or welcoming to the Gentile converts, continuing to see Christianity as an extension of Judaism rather than a faith for the world. The non-Christian Jews were irate with jealousy as Paul incorporated Gentiles and even some in their Jewish community into his new evangelistic endeavor. A Jewish mob formed and began to incarcerate the Christian community. They were released only after paying bail. Paul and his missionary companion Silas had to escape the city under the cover of darkness. (Acts 17:10) Paul was only able to spend four weeks with the Thessalonian Christians in contrast to spending months and even years in other locations. He was concerned that perhaps he did not have time to adequately plant Christian roots that could sustain them through the difficulties that could arise. In Paul’s absence, Timothy visited to inquire about the welfare of the church, and was then to report his findings to worried Paul. Timothy’s report was of great relief to Paul. The church was strong and beginning to thrive. There were some doctrinal issues that arose and Timothy voiced these to Paul, prompting him to write two doctrinal letters to this new, quickly developing church.
Doctrinal issues confronting Thessalonica
The early church expected the return of Jesus at any time. In Matthew 16 and Luke 9 Jesus said, “What I say to you, I say to all: Watch, for you know not the hour” . . . or “Some here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Many took these statements literally, even Paul. Paul even encouraged the early Christians to remain in the state of life they found themselves for Christ and his kingdom were coming. He even encouraged celibacy since Jesus was coming. Then of course, we have little written material, such as gospels until 20-30 years after the resurrection and ascension. We do not yet fully understand these statements of Jesus. However, we can’t dismiss the authoritative assertion by Jesus prior to his ascension. The disciples wanted Jesus to declare that at the present time he would restore the kingdom. Yet Jesus answered, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons the Father has set.” (Acts 1) He continued, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be my witnesses.” It was obvious that Jesus did not want the early church consumed with his return or the end of the age. He wanted them to change the world with the truth that He was Lord! The expectation of Jesus’ imminent return created more than a few problems. Some had stopped working, others ceased to evangelize, and some even grew apathetic. As time passed another issue reared its head. The people whom they believed would be living and witness the return of Jesus were dying! The church initially believed the living Christians would be caught up into the air with Christ and enter heaven. But, what about those Christians who had died? Thus, in the fourth chapter of I Thessalonians, Paul tries to clarify the issue. Paul wrote that Jesus would bring with him those who had died in Christ. These dead saints would then gain their eternal body before those living would be caught up with Christ in the air. This explanation of Paul still confuses many. But remember, Paul understood what it was like to “see through a glass dimly.” I Cor. 13.
I include this section to remind us that the church experienced growing pains in seeking to understand the grand will of God. Expectations, misunderstandings, and painful struggles in life led to many assumptions and interpretations. Imagine Paul attempting to explain the above issue to Gentiles and Jews amid many other competing philosophies and religions! This was but one issue confronting the early church. Reread the Corinthian letters or the Galatian letter to gain a sense of just how difficult instructing and caring for the church had been for Paul. We are mistaken in believing that Paul was a finished product from the start, or that he understood everything perfectly from the Damascus Road forward. Paul, like us, walked with Christ, learned from Christ, and grew in Christ. He even compared his journey with Christ a “race” to be finished. He also repetitively employed the term “walk” in referring to the Christian life. Compare the early letter to the Galatians with his theological letter to the Romans and you will find Paul possessed a far more developed understanding of God, grace, and salvation in Jesus. He had to be a man of keen intellect, great moral character, and deep faith. It is easy to understand why God inspired this former Pharisee to write most of our New Testament. The second return of Jesus remains a mystery. The how, when, and where of his return are in God’s hands. We need mystery in faith. It keeps us on our knees seeking, always aware that God and the divine will are greater than our comprehension.
Theological, historical, and experiential reflection upon I Thessalonians 1:2-10
I Thessalonians 1:2
The writings to the Thessalonians were letters. Paul’s epistles possessed a structure just as the letters we write. He opens with the salutation. Paul’s opening greeting reveals a deep affection for the church. Notice Paul’s use of the plural “we” in his opening. Paul rarely ministered alone. He customarily took fellow missionaries with him on his journeys. Furthermore, Paul remained connected to Christians wherever he happened to find himself. He reminds the church that he and other Christians remembered them in their prayers, regularly. Paul would never inform the Thessalonians of his prayers if he didn’t really pray for them. Sadly, our culture can use “I’m praying for you” as an expression of care, but without actually praying. Paul had a deep, disciplined prayer life. Prayer was not a convenient exercise when he found himself in difficulty, or a quick word of thanks when things were going well. Prayer was woven into the very fabric of Paul’s being. Living the faith and praying went hand in hand. Remember, it was Paul who reminded the early Christians to ‘pray without ceasing.” Certainly, there were most likely other legitimate motives for reminding them of his prayers. His hasty departure to avoid being arrested perhaps made some feel forgotten by Paul. He reminds them he did not! They are in his heart and his prayers.
When we tell others we are praying for them, are we sincere, and do we follow through? Has our culture made such a statement a form of “goodbye” or “I will be thinking of you?” How can we integrate a disciplined prayer life into a routine day? What does “praying without ceasing” mean to you?
I Thessalonians 1:3
The great triad in Paul’s spiritual understanding of life includes faith, hope, and love. In I Corinthians 13 he poetically describes the beauty and importance of each and, their interconnectedness. They were never meant to be separated into three distinct entities. We can only separate them for purposes of discussion. These three are intertwined and interconnected. We can speak of body, soul, and spirit as distinct facets of human existence, yet, in reality they are inseparable. They make us the whole person we are. The same holds true for faith, hope, and love. They create one whole, integrated spiritual life. In the third verse of the text for our lesson Paul first mentions faith, but quickly establishes the all-important understanding that faith produces works, not vice versa. We cannot escape or deny the strong emphasis Paul places on grace. Our faith
in the grace of God in Christ is the great motivator and producer of all our good works. When a person truly and deeply believes God has saved them through grace, that reality should prompt a gracious response. Our works are a response to our faith in God’s goodness, and his loving grace in Jesus Christ.
My spouse and I have been married for 45 years. I frequently perform acts of kindness for her, and give gifts. However, I never do so to earn her love. I do so because I love her, and my love for her has much to do with the reality that she also loves me. We love God, but remember, God loved us first. (I John 4:19) Our response to God’s love is to love in return. Read Ephesians 2 for a beautiful description of the relationship between grace, love, and works.
Next, Paul states that love
is the great motivator for our works, as cited above. All true work for God and the Kingdom must be motivated by sincere love. There are many reasons that can prompt us to do good things. Perhaps I engage in good actions in order to gain something. Perhaps I do good to be liked. Perhaps I act in a good manner because I enjoy the reputation. The greater work for God and his kingdom is done for no other reason
than our love for God because he has so loved us in Christ. Our faith
is in a loving
In closing the third verse Paul moves to hope
. However, his emphasis is no longer on works alone, but on endurance. Hope is that spiritual reality in the triad that keeps us moving forward, persevering and overcoming difficulties. How are hope and endurance connected? First, we need to understand Paul’s understanding of hope. And, in order to understand hope we need to examine it in light of its two counterparts, faith and love. First, hope and faith, though closely linked, are not the same. Furthermore, hope is not mere wishful thinking that says, “I hope it works out.” The following helps me to understand the dynamic relationship between faith, hope, and love. Love is the attribute of all attributes in the nature of God in whom we believe. We believe God is loving, we believe God loves, and we believe God is love. The last phrase is profound in its own right. God loves because God is love. God’s love is the natural expression of who He is! Thus, we have faith in our loving God, especially as that love has been perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ. Since we have faith in God, who is love, we trust that God will always use his creation and each of us for his high, holy will. Our hope is that our loving God never wastes a single moment, or a single life, but works all things to the higher good. (Romans 8) Thus, we can persevere and endure because we have a confident faith in what our loving God is doing in the world and in and through us. This is the inseparable triad of faith, hope, and love.
The Thessalonians can take heart that though Christ may linger in his return, they can have hope
that all is well because all is in the hands of the loving
God in whom they place their faith
What is your understanding of faith, hope, and love? Are they interconnected in your understanding? If so, how? Do we often confuse hope and faith as being the same? What distinction do you make between the two? Why do you think Paul uses this spiritual triad as the foundation all churches and Christians should follow?
I Thessalonians 2:4
In verse 4 we face the difficult and mysterious reality of “election.” We can easily become tempted to interpret statements by Paul as though he intended them only for the individual. However, most often Paul is addressing the entire church and the message is intended for all. For example, in the first chapter of Colossians, Paul prays that we would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. Many assume Paul is asking that each of us, as individuals, understand the will of God for “our life.” However, Paul is praying that “the entire church” will be filled with knowledge of God’s will. In other words, the church needs to understand God’s will for the entire church.
Each church is located in a unique place, at a unique time, with unique gifts. The church must ask, “What is God calling us to do in in the world in which we find ourselves?” Then, as individuals who are members of that church, we are to understand how we fit into that great will for the church. If our church is intended and gifted to be a mission-oriented church, then as a member I need to understand what God intends for and expects from me as I work for that mission-focused church. I need to understand the gifts and graces with which God has endowed me and use them to help my church in its special calling in the world. The issue of election most often is related to the election of “the church.” God chooses various churches to engage in differing and various ministries to help bring the kingdom upon earth as it is in heaven. A church in Asia will most likely experience a call to ministry that is different from my church in South Georgia. And, vice versa. Paul is reminding the church at Thessalonica that God has elected them, in their unique place in the world, for their special ministry. The subject of “foreknowledge” is also a difficult subject when addressing the dynamic of election. God does know ahead of time what churches will serve best in certain contexts and situations to spread the gospel in their part of the world. Naturally, God also knows ahead of time the collective gifts of the church’s members for their special ministry. The Thessalonians have been waiting for the return of Jesus, and some have neglected their service asking, “What is God asking of us, and still asking of us?” “What can we do to minister to people in need and win people to Christ now?” Paul reminds them that they, like all churches, are chosen and precious to God. In other words, Paul is saying to the Thessalonians, “You are important, for you are elected to be the church God has called you to be!” They are not to neglect their ministry while waiting for the return of Jesus, or forget their precious calling. Questions as to whether or not God knows who will be Christians and who will not, and how God uses divine foreknowledge still exists and always will. This theological debate has existed for centuries and continues today. However, again we are seeking to understand God’s magnificent will, and yet our minds can only go so far in comprehending the mind of our creator. When we realize we have reached an impasse in our understanding, we bow and kneel before the wonder of God’s perfect will and we find peace in knowing all is indeed working for the good through God’s love. Our lesson does not ask us to solve this great mystery. We are, however, to realize Paul wants the Thessalonians to remember their important role in the world, for God has chosen them for that role. After all, God knows them and what they can accomplish for the kingdom.
Do you feel as though your local church possesses a sense of election? What is its unique mission where it is located, in its time? What gifts and graces does your church have that reveal its calling in the community? How do these gifts and graces reveal God’s election of the church? Does your church help people discover God’s will for individual members as they participate in the entire church ministry? Do people know where they fit, and why? What problems can arise when a person tries to determine God’s will for them, apart from a relationship with a local church? Is our loving ministry in the church and in the world dependent upon solving the mysteries of election and foreknowledge? If not, then is it more productive to remain engaged in the ministry to which Jesus calls us, or attempting to solve the great mystery of election and foreknowledge?
I Thessalonians 1:5a
The Gentile world in which Paul is evangelizing highly values philosophy and wisdom. Many competing philosophies and expressions of religious thought exist in the Greek world. Thessalonica is exposed to most all of them. Many of the philosophies and religions rely on a particular pattern of logic and words to make the case for their philosophical and religious arguments. Paul never retreated in presenting the gospel orally, using oral arguments, and employing public proclamation. Paul used teaching and preaching to proclaim the truth of Christ. However, Paul reminds the church at Thessalonica that he used something else, something far different from philosophies and religions. He would even assert he didn’t use it; instead, it used him. Paul reminded the church that he came to them with an inner power, the power of the person of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Spirit was so potent that Paul’s words possessed the power to create “deep conviction.” People’s hearts were moved and stirred as the Holy Spirit empowered Paul’s preaching and teaching. It would have been evident to the people in Thessalonica that the Holy Spirit indwelled Paul and created a deep conviction in them. Again, Paul is reminding the church that they are important because they are chosen, and the Holy Spirit has affirmed that election through Paul’s preaching, teaching, and other works of the Spirit. Perhaps there were other signs and wonders occurring as Paul ministered among them. The text is silent on other powerful workings of the Spirit. Yet, the silence doesn’t mean they did not occur, for historically such signs and wonders accompanied the Spirit’s ministry through the apostles. However, since Paul is contrasting his ministry against those of philosophers and religious speakers of various sects who use oral logic, he is reminding the Thessalonians that “his words” had a divine power that touched and changed them.
Have there been experiences in your church of “deep conviction?” What do you think that term means? What is the important role of the Holy Spirit in all ministry, and especially preaching and teaching? What distinguishes the Christian message today from various philosophies and other religious expressions? What makes Christianity ring true in our culture? Do we understand today the important role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and the individual Christian? How does the Holy Spirit’s ministry set us apart for other expressions of religious belief?
I Thessalonians 1:5b
Paul has appealed to the important calling upon the Thessalonian church. He has reminded them their important calling is evident because God has performed a powerful work among them through Paul’s ministry in the Holy Spirit. Paul now further confirms God’s use of him and Silas in their ministry to the Thessalonian church by stating, “Look how we lived among you.” A person can possess tremendous power to speak, or even perform miracles, but without righteous character their ministry will fail. Undergirding the entirety of Paul’s ministry is his obvious character. Paul never intentionally attempts to live in self-righteousness. That is a character flaw, not an expression of character. However, when necessary, Paul is unafraid to ask the church to examine his character and behavior among them. Paul knows who he is in Christ, he knows the man Christ has made of him, and he understands what God is asking of him. This knowledge empowers Paul and endows his ministry with tremendous credibility. What is the substance of Christian character? Jesus said those who would deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him are his disciples. True character denies all selfishness, and loves without reservation. Christian character will do the right thing even at great personal cost. True character thinks not of itself, but of the ultimate good of another. In such a manner Paul lived his life. Therefore, amid the confusion concerning the time of Christ’s return, the competing religions, and the persecution experienced by the Christians at Thessalonica, Paul was letting them know they could stand on his word and character, for they would not fail them, for the character within them is the expression of the Holy Spirit within, the very Spirit of Christ.
Can you recall an experience when a ministry possessed a powerful presentation, but a lack of character caused its collapse? Why is our character paramount in sharing Jesus? How does Jesus call us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him? How do these words of Jesus give meaning to our own character? Does a local church have a corporate character of denial, taking up their cross, and following Jesus? If not, what does it say about its collective ministry?
I Thessalonians 1:6
Paul offers the Christians at Thessalonica a closing, powerful compliment. They too are beginning to demonstrate and live in such character. They too are willing to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Thus, Paul could say, “You became imitators of us and the Lord.” As the persecution began, and the Jewish leaders began to incarcerate all Christians, it would prove easy for the young Christians to abandon the faith. Allowing themselves to be arrested for a new faith that some greatly disliked and mistrusted was a dangerous risk. However, they assumed that risk, and did it with great joy, for they truly believed. Some suffered severely. Paul reminds them that only those filled with God’s Spirit could accept and embrace such suffering in joy, knowing God was using their suffering for his will. Again, they had hope, and thus endured. If the Holy Spirit can comfort them during this time of suffering, then they can trust the same Holy Spirit to grant them comfort and patience as they wait for the return of Christ, no matter how long they must wait, and even if they fail to understand its great mystery.
Can you recall a moment of having to suffer for a righteous cause? Have you witnessed others engaged in such suffering? How did you endure? How do you think they endured? Was there a deep sense of joy in being able to suffer for God’s will? What role does hope play in your ability to suffer for Christ?
The Summary: I Thessalonians 1: 7-10c
The closing three verses really serve as the summary for the preceding text. These verses reveal where Paul was headed with all his observations and remarks. Like the closing to a good sermon that brings all the points to their logical, practical, and inspirational conclusion, Paul uses these closing verses to do just that. Few statements are more powerful in this section than Paul’s assertion, “Your faith in God has become known everywhere!” Again, Thessalonica stood at a commercial and religious crossroad where sea and land connected. From Thessalonica the gospel would move eastward into the heart of the Roman Empire, or westward into new nations that did not yet know Christ. Their witness of belief in a God of love and mercy, and their hope that all was well and would always be well gave Thessalonica a confident faith that was difficult to ignore. Their witness was confirmed and became a story to be shared as their faith never faltered during the time of persecution by the Jewish leaders. Paul and Silas escaped the persecution. However, the story of the Thessalonian’s faith also escaped the bounds of the city and was being shared in the larger world. Paul, Silas, and Timothy even stated they felt no need to boast or tell the story of what God was doing through Thessalonica. Their story had a life of its own through the Holy Spirit. Instead of becoming a church confused regarding the second coming of Christ, they became known as a church willing to leave the how, when and where
of this culminating event in the hands of God. Instead of being known as a church attempting to pin down the coming of Jesus, they were a church who chose to tell the story: The Christ who is coming is the divine Christ who conquered death once and for all, and will reward all with eternal life. He was raised from the dead and saves us all from the coming wrath of judgment. Through the work of the Spirit through Paul they understood who they were, why they lived at that time in life, and what God had in store for them. All they had to do was have faith, love, and hope and allow these to empower them to live as examples for all to see and hear.
How great are your mysteries O Lord, yet even greater is the love you have revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord through the work of your Holy Spirit. He is the savior of the world, the king of kings, and the returning Lord. At his presence every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. Increase our faith in your goodness, increase our love for you and all others, and grant us that blessed hope to trust you in every moment of life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.