A Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1.2-10

Oh, to Grace How Great A Debtor

From sometime in August of 2009 until May 6, 2010 my wife experienced almost all of the trials of pregnancy.  I still remember quite vividly her weak stomach, all day sickness, back aches and side pains, dehydration and pre-term labor, difficulty sleeping, and of course contractions that climaxed in the pains of delivery.  However, when Luke was born, there came a joy, and it is an increasing joy to this day, that has overwhelmed all of those trials of labor — at least in my mind!  At the end of the day, her labor was not in vain.

The apostle Paul and his companions, Silas and Timothy, labored in the gospel at Thessalonica, but because of must affliction and suffering, he thought that their labor might have been in vain.  And, so, Paul sent Timothy to them for a check up, he says in 3.2-3, “to establish and exhort (them) in (their) faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions.”  And, Timothy’s report was good news to Paul — their labor was not in vain.  God had providentially blessed their gospel labors; the believers in Thessalonica were standing strong by God’s grace.

And, so, Paul rejoices and this letter is an expression of this joy that their gospel ministry had been providentially blessed; so what we have in the passage that we’ve just read is the first expression of Paul’s joy in a worthwhile gospel ministry, and we might ask then “what does Paul’s joy look like?  How does he express it?” — by seeking to further strengthen them in God’s grace.

Now, this is useful for us this morning because we have a tendency to become used to God and used to grace.  It is much like me having lived my whole life in South Carolina, and having people learning this fact about me and saying, “South Carolina is such a beautiful place,” and I just sort of say, “Huh.”  I don’t see its beauties because I’ve become used to it, and I’ve begun to take it for granted.  I don’t feel its beauties any more.  But,  that is not what Paul wants to happen for us in relationship to God, and so he seeks to awaken us by drawing attention to God and His grace in our lives. It is good for us to huddle up around the embers of our God, and around the flames of his grace, so that our hearts might take in fresh portraits of divine grace.

And there are three ways that Paul awakens us by drawing attention to God and His grace in our lives — first, he grounds all of our commendation in grace (it is a humbling commendation); second, he grounds our conversion in a doctrine of grace; third, he reminds us of five evidences of grace in the heart.

First, he grounds all of our commendation in grace (it is humbling commendation).

In 1.2-3 Paul writes, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul has a double purpose in this thanksgiving — he really does want to commend these believers for their authenticity and at the same time he wants it to be a humbling commendation; he doesn’t want it to be a commendation that leaves them with the possibility of becoming puffed up and prideful, which actually serves to bring God’s opposition into our lives, but rather to encourage them in such a way that they are humbled by it.  The way that Paul goes about doing this is by telling them that their practice of Christianity is authentically divine, and at the same time, accomplished by divine grace.

And, so, he actually does commend them.  He writes in 1.3, “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” which I simply take to be authentic Christianity.  It is not abstract work, or an abstract labor, or steadfastness; no it is the work of faith, the labor of love, the steadfastness of hope; and it is not faith without works or love without labors or hope without steadfastness, but it is faith with works, love with labors, and hope with steadfastness in the Lord Jesus Christ.  So he is commending the Thessalonian believers, really and personally for their authentic Christianity.  But there is a danger in 1.3, that if he doesn’t come back and thank God for them and their authenticity, they might become prideful, we might become prideful.  And so, in 1.2, he says we give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers.  This thanksgiving is the highest commendation, the highest encouragement that any believer can receive.

There are three sorts of thanksgiving — first, the young child who, upon receiving some kindness from you, has to be reminded to say “thank you,” and that somewhat insincerely; second, between a spouse or other loved ones, as for example, with my wife, who recently did something for me that freed up some additional time for me to do other things, and I reply quite briefly but lovingly, “Thanks, honey”; and third, when your parent in the faith, the one who knew who you were before the grace of God, thanks not you, but God for you, and not only once but “always” and “constantly” in their prayerful communion with God, where they remember – of all things –  “you” and “your” “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.”

I want you to be able to see that a hearty thanksgiving to God is the highest commendation that you can receive concerning the authenticity of your Christianity, because on the one hand it says, that all of your deeds in Christ are greater than merely human, they are divine in origin — this is your commendation.  At the same time these things are by grace and so we get the privilege of entering into divine and redemptive works in the world but God gets the glory.  And Paul is not the only one teaching us this.  This is what our Lord said also, “that we should let our light shine before men so that they might see our good works and yet glorify our Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5.16).

Which means that God has given us the privilege of doing things that image Him in the world.  Now, how does this serve us this morning? Understanding that grace has enabled us to do these things, we are humbled, and humility is the groundswell of greater fruitfulness!  We read in James 4.6 that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, and that is exactly what Paul is wanting to do here by thanking God for your authenticity.  He is wanting to commend you really and personally, and he is wanting to humble you so that you don’t become prideful and invite the active opposition of God into your life; he wants you to be humble so that you can receive more grace, so that you can be more fruitful in all of your labors for Christ.  And, therefore, a good rule of grace is that for every one instance of commendation that you receive, you turn it around and give thanks to God one hundred times over.

Second, Paul grounds our conversion in a doctrine of grace.

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1.4-5b).

Paul wants the Thessalonians to know two things — first, that they are loved by God; and second, that Paul knows they are the elect of God.  These two things, love and the grace of election, go together.  In fact, Paul writes in Ephesians 1, beginning in 1.4, “(God) chose us in (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.  In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (1.4-6a).  So we get it all here — (1) election, (2) love, (3) praise for His glorious grace.

So, Paul wants them to know that they are loved, and brothers and sisters, I want you to know that you are loved by God also.  So, what does Paul do?  He gives them doctrine!  And, it is a mighty doctrine!  The election of God is the ground of thanksgiving to God, the ground of humility, the ground of our conversion and the power source for transformed living.  This means that we can’t just throw it away because it is tagged as “doctrine.”  If you throw this gracious doctrine away because it causes you mental nausea, you throw away any hope you might have for the conversion of others and any ground for transforming grace in your life.  The free and sovereign election of God is not a deterrent to the gospel, but the hope of the gospel.  It is not the doctrine of a mean God, but an expression of His eternal love.  So we can’t throw it away!  What must we do with it? Draw near to it as to a fire in the middle of winter, and be warmed by it!

God’s gracious election says four things about God’s love for you — (1) God’s love for you is eternal love.  The love of a spouse for another after fifty years is very great and yet imperfect.  God has loved you in Christ from all eternity with perfect love.  (2) God’s love for you is pursuant love.  You’ll notice in 1.5 that Paul says (my paraphrase), “We know that God has loved you eternally, because His love pursued you,” that is, “because our gospel came to you in a particular way.”  God’s love for you sovereignly sought you out and brought the gospel of His grace to you that you might be saved.  (3) God’s love for you is a dying love.  It is the gospel that came to you, that God sent His Son, Jesus, to die for the forgiveness of your sins.  “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8).  (4) God’s love for you is a resurrecting love.  Again, in 1.5, Paul writes, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  So, the way that you know that you are the elect of God and dearly beloved, is that when you heard the gospel, even though you might have heard the gospel one thousand times before, is that one time, at God’s appointed time, your hearts were opened, and God gave you eyes to see and ears to hear, and Christ and Him crucified was no longer folly or a stumbling block to you, but the wisdom and power of God, and you were washed by the Spirit, born again, quickened, awakened, changed, made a new creation and it convicted you of the truth of that gospel.

And, thus, there is an inward change, a new heart, a resurrection in the soul, — at once you saw the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and the eternal love of God for you in Christ.  Now, where there is saving grace in the heart, there resides also transforming grace.  In other words, grace in the new heart produces outward evidences.

Third, Paul reminds us of five evidences of grace in the heart.

The first evidence of grace — desire to imitate godly examples.

“You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.  And you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1.5c).

This is most unnatural to mankind.  We are born as sponges for sin, sin-absorbers.  No one has to teach a child how to rebel or how to become angry or how to be disobedient.  They absorb the example that they see in us.  There is no saving grace upon the heart yet.  This grace trains us to reject the ungodly and to imitate examples of that are pleasing to God.  And, this was the sort of example that Paul established for the Thessalonians.

Paul and his co-laborers had proven to be bold in preaching “the gospel of God.”  They spoke to please God rather than men.  They were not greedy or flattering.  They did not seek the praise of men.  They were “gentle among” them, “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.”  They shared not only the gospel, but gave of their own lives so that they would believe the gospel.  They “worked night and day” in order “not to be a burden to any of you,” and while they toiled they proclaimed the gospel to them still.  Their conduct was “holy and righteous and blameless.”  And, “like a father with his children,” they “exhorted” and “encouraged” and “charged” these believers to walk in a “manner worthy of God.”  This was the example set before the Thessalonians.  And, Paul writes, they did this “for (their) sake.”  This means that the governor set upon their moment to moment activities was the eternal good of others, which raises a question.  Is this what determines the priorities of your day?  Is your heart so taken by grace that the conversion or growth in godliness of others is the guide of your days?  Are your lives lived for the sake of others?  Paul could say “yes.”

And, you’ll notice that they imitated the example that they saw in Paul and his companions.  But, not only did they imitate Paul and Silas and Timothy, they imitated the Lord.  This is the goal of God in your salvation.  “For those whom (God) foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8.29).  God has predestined you to look like Jesus, and if you are imitating Him, then this is sure evidence that you are God’s child and Christ’s brother, and it is a proof of grace in your life.

The second evidence of grace — a surpassing joy in the Word of God.

“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1.6-7).

Now, more specifically, these believers imitated Paul and Silas and Timothy and the Lord in this way — their joy in the Word was greater than any affliction on account of it!  Thus, it is a surpassing joy!

Our Lord was the Word of God in flesh, and He did not speak any other word but that which the Father gave to Him to make known to us.  And for this Jesus was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53.3).  For His words, Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross.  He met more affliction than any other man on earth.  And yet, we read in Hebrews 12.2 that our Lord endured the cross, despising its shame, because of the joy that was set before Him.  Thus, there was a joy greater than the cross that strengthened Jesus, enabling Him to endure such affliction.

Everywhere that Paul went, the Lord testified to him of persecutions and imprisonments on account of the word of God.  Still, he proclaimed the gospel with boldness.  What it means then in this passage for Paul and his friends to have proven themselves to the Thessalonians, is that when the fires of affliction arose on account of the Word and gospel of God, they were not the sort to run and hide, but were strengthened by grace to stand fast in those fires and boldly proclaim the message of salvation to them.

Now, it says that these believers imitated their reception of the Word.  In affliction they still received it, and they received it with divine, surpassing joy!  And, Paul writes, they became examples to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.  So, we see, a legacy of surpassing joy in God’s Word is developing — from the Lord, to His apostles, specifically Paul, and to the Thessalonians who became an example in this same thing to all the believers within 500 miles of them!

This morning, their example is set before us.  Will we imitate them and enter into the legacy of surpassing joy in God’s Word? Will we become examples of this surpassing joy from Louisville to Madison, Wisconsin?  Would we be like John Huss, that 15th century reformer who preceded Martin Luther by nearly 100 years, who, when he was faced with being burned at the stake, said, “Lord Jesus Christ, I wish to bear most patiently and humbly for thy Gospel’s sake and the preaching of thy Word, this dire, ignominious and cruel death,” and once they had bound his neck to the stake by a rusty chain and lighted the combustibles beneath him, the flames encompassing his body, he sang, “Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me.”  He sang!  Who can sing but for a surpassing joy in that Word for which you are being persecuted?  It is more than a book; it is the living Word of God through which, if you are born again this morning, you were birthed through it!  These are personal words from a personal God, 66 glorious books, and 1 glorious gospel, written down for you!  Your surpassing joy in it is a sure evidence of grace.

The third evidence of grace — their proclamation was boundless.

“For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (1.8).

They saw no limitations before them in their preaching of the Word of the Lord.  There were no hindrances to their faith in God!  They entered fully into God’s great drama of redemption.  God intends for all the nations to worship Him through Christ.  The goal of God in history is to cover the whole earth with His glory even as the waters cover the seas.  This happens when we have God’s heart for the nations.  What does this heart look like?  The uninhibited, unhindered, eager and bold “sounding forth” of the word of the Lord, the gospel of Christ.

Now, this is the proper response to the grace of the “gospel coming” to them, to us.  In the book of Acts, Jesus commissioned the apostles to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.8).  And, as you read Acts, you notice that the gospel progresses in that manner.  When you come to Acts 16, Paul wants to go to the Northeast, but the Spirit of Jesus keeps him from going to Asia and leads him to the Northwest so that the gospel might be proclaimed in the region of Macedonia.  God, Himself, directs the gospel to come to Macedonia, and Paul’s fourth stop is Thessalonica!  Now, Thessalonica is not Jerusalem, it is not Judea, it is not Samaria, but it is part, then, of the “end of the earth.”  This is why the Jews in Thessalonica shouted of Paul and companions, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also . . . saying that there is another king, Jesus” (17.6-7).

These believers knew grace!  They were not Jews from Jerusalem.  They were Gentiles from Thessalonia on the other side of the world.  And, God had been turning the world upside down through weak vessels in order to get the gospel to them!  They saw a God, and a gospel, and gospel laborers who allowed nothing to stand in their way, and these believers responded in kind!

Brothers and sisters, we are further West than these Thessalonians!  How much grace has been involved in all of the providence that brought the gospel of God to you?  Your proper response to God’s love is a congregational preaching of Christ and a faith in God that is boundless in scope!  This is a sure evidence of grace!

The fourth evidence of grace — a reputation for holiness.

“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1.9).

Their love for God and service to God were widely known.  They were not famous for the size of their congregation, or for the greatness of their programs; they were famous for their holiness, for their devotion to God.

In 1 John 5.21, John writes to believers “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”  I take this to mean, in a positive sense, “a new affection for God, a new love for God has come by grace; cling to Him!  God has filled up your hearts, God will satisfy you — what have you to do anymore with idols?”

Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a Scottish Presbyterian preacher, preached a sermon on October 25, 1840 on Hosea 14.8 which states, “What have I to do any more with idols?”  This is how he begins — “If you are this day come to Jesus, God loves you freely.  If you believe on Him that justifieth the ungodly, your faith is counted for righteousness.  As long as you came to God in yourself, you were infinitely vile, loathsome, condemned — mountains of iniquity covered your soul; but blessed, Blessed, BLESSED be the Holy Spirit who has led you to Jesus.  You have come to God’s righteous Servant, who by His knowledge justifies many, because He bears your iniquities.  Your sins are covered, God sees no iniquity in you; God loves you freely, His anger is turned away from you.  What have you to do, then, any more with idols? Is not the love of God enough for thee?  The loving and much-loved wife is satisfied with the love of her husband; his smile is her joy, she cares little for any other.  So, if you have come to Christ, thy Maker is thine husband; His free love to you is all you need, and all you can care for; there is no cloud between you and God, there is no veil between you and the Father; you have access to Him who is the fountain of happiness, of peace, of holiness, — what have you to do any more with idols? Oh, if your heart swims in the rays of God’s love, like a little mote swimming in the sunbeam, you will have no room in your heart for idols.”

And, now I say, strive, then, “strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  Cling fast to the God who has promised to cleanse you from all of your idols through Christ by the Spirit (Ezek 36.25).  This is a sure evidence of grace.

The fifth evidence of grace — patient waiting for Jesus.

“And to wait for His Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1.10).

There are realities in the world that we hope for — as parents we might hope that our children will receive scholarships to the greatest universities; as children we might hope to receive the gift that we have long desired for Christmas; farmers hope for a good harvest, sports enthusiasts hope for championships; the sick hope for health, the poor hope for provision.  But, every Christian has received a hope that is greater than all other hopes because it pertains to deliverance from the greatest realities in the universe — a holy God angry at our sin, ready to pour out divine wrath at any moment.  But we who have believed upon Christ have inherited a hope of deliverance.  “We wait eagerly,” Paul writes, “for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8.23-25).

The greatest problem in all the world is God’s wrath against sin, and therefore, the greatest hope in the world is Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.  Nothing else is worth hoping in and patiently waiting for!  And, so that we might be certain of our salvation, Paul writes that Jesus was raised from the dead.  The resurrection of Jesus is God’s signature upon Christ’s saving work — if you trust in Christ, you have been and will be delivered from the wrath to come.  Doctors can save you from bodily sickness, for a time; but Jesus saves you from your sin and from the wrath of God forever!  So, wait patiently for your Savior, long for His coming!  It is a sure evidence of God’s amazing grace!

Dear brothers and sisters, — I will leave you with one concluding thought: if this grace is so great, authenticating all of our labors, being the origin of who we are in Christ, an expression of God’s eternal, pursuant, dying and resurrecting love for us, a combustible ingredient upon our hearts causing us to love Christ, and to be constrained by His love, and to bear such splendid outward evidences, a grace that is fundamental to our salvation, our sanctification and our eventual glorification, how great is our God from whom it comes.  Grace is like a single ray beaming from the sun!  Such a ray is infinitely less than the sun itself; so God is infinitely greater than His great grace in our lives!  Now, I commend you most highly to the grace of God, and infinitely more to the God of grace.  While this passage certainly speaks of grace, God pervades it — 18 times Paul makes some mention of God.  This is nothing less than the “life of God in the soul of man.”  Brothers and sisters, may your lives be tightly bound to Him who is the Treasure of the universe.  Let us, then, close in prayer to our unfathomably gracious God —

Oh, to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be; let Thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to Thee.  Father, help us to know more of your grace in our hearts and in our lives, and let our hearts be turned to You afresh.  Quicken us; awaken us, and greatly help us to grow in grace, in humility, in knowledge, in thanksgiving, in joy, boldness, holiness and hope in Jesus’ name.  Amen.


A Must Watch Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1.26-31

By John Piper.  Some have quipped, even in the seminary classroom, how Piper has but one sermon.  Well, that may be true, but I can’t for the life of me see anything wrong with that one sermon.  For that one sermon, I believe, approaches the content and joy of that one sermon and song that we will be hearing in glory forever, and I do not think that we will ever tire of hearing it then and there.  Why should we tire of hearing foretastes of it here and now.  A mighty sermon indeed.

Hearing the Music of the Gospel: Christ-Centered Bible Study

by Keith E. Johnson.  A great reminder of the gospel and of that essential confrontation between your heart, your brokenness, and of God’s redemptive and restorative grace in Christ, every time you read and study the Bible.  Highly recommended.  Go here.

A Witty, Interesting Post by Kevin DeYoung

Stolen from Patrick Schreiner’s blog by me.  Concerns the locus of authority in the Christian life.