2010-01-17 (am) 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10 Hope Series-Intro
The earthquake in Haiti has affected everyone. In times such as these, people look for answers. Online, people from all over are offering opinions and ideas. Some even suggest that the earthquake was a result of God’s divine retribution. Others rightly attribute it to a consequence of the Fall. Natural disasters are examples of creation groaning from under the curse of sin.
Into this chaotic situation, God speaks. He does not speak of judgement and retribution, but rather, he speaks of salvation, of comfort and of care. He speaks of hope.
Hope brings comfort. Not all is lost. We will rebuild. We will comfort one another. The world, which has demonstrated love, care and concern, in other places in the past, will respond with the same in Haiti, the world is responding in kind.
Hope says, we may never know why this has happened, but there is more to life on earth than what we can see with our eyes. Hope says there is a God, and he cares. Hope says, “The present sufferings are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17).
Dictionary.com defines hope as: “to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence.” This is a good definition of hope. Hope is not blind. Hope is full of desire and reasonable confidence.
Where does that reasonable confidence come from? It comes from the living, powerful, present God. He is the one true God. He is the one who visited the Thessalonians with the power of the Holy Spirit, who gave them the courage and strength to face severe suffering.
The Thessalonian church needed hopeful encouragement. They needed a reminder that God is present with them in the Holy Spirit, that what they believe is true, that they have reasonable conviction about what they believe. All this translates into hope for daily life.
Hope is something God gives every believer. Hope rejoices when good things happen. Hope reminds us of God’s faithfulness when difficult things happen. Hope, produced in us by the Holy Spirit, gives us comfort for the future, that there is life after death, that we will be with Jesus!
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time studying this book. Therefore, let’s get to know the Thessalonian church a little bit. Thessalonica is located in Greece. Cassander, an officer who served Alexander the Great, founded it in 315 B.C. He named the city after his wife, Thessalonica, who was Alexander’s sister.
Due to its prime location, Thessalonica became a prosperous and important city. During the spread of the Roman Empire, the city of Thessalonica made some shrewd political decisions resulting in it retaining a local government, which had autonomy from Rome.
When Paul’s missionary journey brought him to Thessalonica, he found a wealthy, prosperous, thriving city. There were some Jews living there who had some Gentile converts, called God-fearers. The rest of the city was made up of pagan Gentiles, who worshipped many gods. In those days, there was no such thing as separation of church and state. A person’s beliefs were intimately entwined with every aspect of life.
In many respects, then, the socio-economic climate in Thessalonica was similar to most of Canada. The main difference was in the object of religion. Whereas most people in Canada are either atheists or agnostics with an objectless spirituality, most of the people in Thessalonica worshipped physical idols, which may or may not have represented deities. For those who have watched the movie, Gladiator, the gods were those little statues that Maximus had set up in his house.
Paul reports how the Thessalonian Gentiles turned from their idols to worship the living and true God. Actually, these opening verses in chapter 1 tell us what Paul is going to teach in his letter. It is like an introductory paragraph for an essay. Those of you who are taking English, or who remember their lessons, will know that that an introductory paragraph highlights what the author intends to say in the essay.
The main thing Paul wants to do in this letter is encourage the Thessalonians in their faith, because of the situation they are in. He also wrote to the Thessalonians in order to reintroduce himself to them. Paul hadn’t been able to spend very much time in Thessalonica. All we know for sure is that Paul preached in the synagogue three times. Later, either right away, or sometime later, he was forced to leave because of opposition from the Jews.
When Paul preached, he preached the gospel. He demonstrated from the prophets that Jesus is the Messiah. He showed them how the gospel answers their deepest questions regarding life, and how it gives them true hope for the future. That they can be confident, not only in this life, but also concerning the life to come.
The gospel is everything. Jesus died so that we might have life. Jesus suffered the curse of sin in our place. Jesus was raised from the dead, and he gives us his righteousness. This righteousness produces righteousness in all Christians. It is not earned; it is a free gift of grace.
Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation, the old has passed away, and the new has come. This new life in Christ transformed how the Thessalonians lived their lives.
They had to give up their pagan gods, their pagan religion. For us, we might think, no big deal, right? We know that their gods were only statues, objects made by human hands, given authority and power by human invention. They didn’t actually do anything. They were mute, dead and powerless.
That’s why Paul encourages them by reminding them that their faith, in contrast is now in the living God! Before they had worshipped a lie, now they worship he who is Truth!
But their struggles were not only in moving from false objects of worship to the one true object of worship, their struggles came from the society they lived in.
They had to change their very lifestyles. I’ve mentioned already that their society didn’t have a separation of church and state as we have. Turning away from idol worship involved turning away from society.
In those days, relationships were quite different. A married man would have a wife who would bear him legitimate children. In addition to his wife, he might also have a mistress, someone to give him pleasure. He would have no problem whatsoever visiting a temple prostitute, especially since such acts were believed to help with business, crops, or whatever. He might also have more than one wife.
There were class distinctions between the rich and poor, between people who worked different trades, between men and women, between slaves and free. Granted, the system of slavery was very different than the system that was overthrown in the days of William Wilberforce. Nevertheless, people who were forced into slavery, or who became willing slaves were probably treated differently.
Conversion to Christianity meant giving up these cultural things. It meant that women and men treated each other with respect. It meant that no one could put himself over another person simply because of his social status.
And yet, from Paul’s letter we know God worked mightily in Thessalonica, converting people and empowering them, by the Holy Spirit to live lives worthy of the calling in Christ! However, we must not be so naive to think that the rest of society were happy about these Christian converts.
Already when Paul was there, opposition came from the Jews who refused to believe in Christ, as he himself had once refused to believe. Then there was opposition from the rest of society.
Belief in Christ meant that they could no longer worship other gods, or the idols that represented the gods. These gods were everywhere. There was the god of harvest, the god of the leather workers, the god of the tentmakers, and the god of the wool traders. Honouring these other Gods was wrapped up in the fabric of life, every business transaction involved paying respect to the gods. There were temple taxes, duties, responsibilities. All of a sudden, a portion of the city, these new Christians refused to pay. They refused to participate.
So, the city began to exercise sanctions against them. They were denied access to goods and services. They were denied access to the markets. Their very livelihoods were at stake. Paul says they suffered severely. They probably didn’t suffer persecution unto death, yet, but the pressure on them to conform to their old way of living was huge. They might have had to change jobs. They might have had to sell their houses. They might have had to walk on the other side of the street because they were shunned by others. Businesses might have refused to serve them or sell them anything.
And, yet, for all that, they remained steadfast in their faith. Timothy’s report brought great encouragement to Paul. Timothy told him that their faith was strong! The report from Thessalonica was incredibly positive! Out of their difficulties, they gave. Their faith became famous! They continued even under severe suffering!
This is where the rubber meets the road. Paul is writing to us too! He’s saying, your faith not only saves your soul, it affects every aspect of your life. You are a brand new creation. You are a saint! You are empowered by the Holy Spirit. You serve the living and true God! There is no other, accept no other substitute.
Paul is saying faith in God is a greater treasure than anything that can be found on earth: it gives reasonable confidence, it gives hope. We look at history and throughout it all we see our Creator’s hand. We see God at work in the midst of suffering, because he himself suffered. We see how he restored Job. We see how he restored Israel. We see how he brought Lazarus back to life. We see His Son raised from the grave. We see changes in our own lives! We see changes in others’ lives.
And in the face of tragedies like Haiti, we give. We give so that others may share in our hope. We visit, we make effort after effort in order to encourage and give hope. We don’t give up, we continue, in God’s grace. In fact, apart from God’s grace, we never would continue.
One last thing. Did you notice how Paul referred to the Thessalonians? They are the beloved of God. They are the chosen by God ones. So are we. Our presence here this morning is no accident. We’re here because God called us to himself. We, along with many others who are not here, are called by God. We participate in God’s calling through obedient living. But all of it originates with God.
This means what Paul said in Romans 8 is true and not just a platitude. Nothing can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. Not earthquakes, not illness, not tough decisions, not stress, nothing. God has called us, saved us, by and for his glory. Amen.