Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 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, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 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. 9 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, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
The question before us has been that of the exemplary church and what it looks like/what it should be known for. It is a basic question. But it is, nevertheless, one that is needful. I’m not aware of anyone asking it. Of course, someone might be. This would be my hope. And I’m sure if one were to look down through the course of church history, he would find it to be a subject addressed. But these days are somehow marked by a famine regarding the question, at least in terms biblical. One might even say that for the most part, being an exemplary church is not the aim, if it’s on the radar screen at all. All too often the goal seems to be nothing more than survival. Things like keeping the doors open, paying the mortgage, filling the pews, building bridges with other religious groups [like the Muslims] and being liked and respected in the neighborhood drives any number of local fellowships. We ourselves can, of course, relate to, and even sympathize with some of these concerns [perhaps one or two]. Filling the pews and keeping the doors open, and even being respected in the locale are not bad things, not necessarily. But these things, and things like them, are not to drive us. Exemplary churches do not, in other words, put the cart before the horse; the horse is always before the cart. If a fellowship copies godliness, suffers for the gospel, is led by the Spirit, and trumpets the truth of Christ, its pews will fill, the doors will be open, and the locale will, in some real sense, respect it [even if it doesn’t care for it much].
What does the exemplary church look like? We’ve seen it in this epistle. It is really a church marked not by ‘bells and whistles’ but the basics. It copies godliness for example. In verse 6, Paul states one of the effects of his preaching, that those to whom he writes ‘became imitators’ of him, his co-workers, and of the Lord Himself. We could spend much time here on this one point. But for my current aim and purpose, allow me to quickly zero in on one thing. The Lord Jesus Christ is the standard of godliness. He is the exact imprint of God’s nature and character. He is the fullness of deity, the embodiment of all righteousness, the fulfillment of the Law, the One who fills full the incomplete picture of God’s character furnished to us in the Old Covenant. Next time you put a water jug, a pitcher, on your table, put just a drop of water in it. That’s a picture of the shadow of the Old Covenant. It’s nowhere near full. Christ fills that pitcher/picture up. So, then you fill the jug to the brim. That’s New Covenant righteousness. That’s the standard, a full picture/pitcher, not one that’s merely wet. This isn’t rocket science. Christ, as the fullness of deity and exact representation of God’s nature, is immeasurably greater than the 10 c’s. He is their fulfillment. He fills up the shadow, the incomplete, insufficient, inferior picture of righteousness the law provides. Jesus is God. And His sons and daughters should look increasingly like His Son, not anything less. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were on that track. And exemplary churches follow suit. Exemplary churches, believers, pattern themselves after the fullest expression of godliness, i.e. Christ, not some lesser, incomplete descriptor of it. For if they did, they would not look like Christ, but someone else, or some THING else, like a Jew, even like Paul pre-conversion!
Second, we saw that exemplary churches suffer for the gospel. Again in verse 6, Paul says these believers ‘received the word in much affliction.’ Believing came at tremendous cost to them. It was not a matter of convenience. Nor was receiving the word an easy thing. Embracing the word of God is never in vogue. It’s never ‘in season.’ This is true no matter who you are or where you are. It was true in the first century, in Thessalonica. It was true a long time before that. We have only to think of Noah to be reminded of that fact. And the same is true today. Men are always men. Women are as they are. Apart from divine intervention, apart from God opening hearts and removing veils, men and women will always mock those who receive the word preached. Perhaps you heard how a pastor in California was arrested recently for reading his Bible outside in public. I expect that kind of thing, that kind of persecution, from places like Vancouver or anywhere east of say, Winnipeg – or even Calgary. But the USA, the “land of the free?” Men are men. And women are women. Boys will be boys; and girls, girls. It matters not who they are, where they are, or when they are. To those who are perishing, the word of the cross is foolishness. To the religious, the self-reliant and self-righteous, it’s a stumbling block, an offense. They mock. They curse. They undermine, revile, arrest, throw in the stocks, drown, burn at the stake, and saw in two. When we think outside our teeny weeny selves and outside our brief moment in history, and see what happens when people receive the word, we see something of what an exemplary church is.
Third, we saw that the exemplary church is Spirit-led. Though it had received the word in much affliction, it did so with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Because it was Spirit led, there was life there. It was marked by joy, a true joy. This was a joy, you will have noted, which did not rest, which was not determined or defined by circumstance or even frowning providence. This was a joy in connection with receiving the word and in the middle of ‘much affliction.’ This was not a joy that undid the affliction. Faith doesn’t make the pain go away. This was a joy despite the affliction, one that made the pain more than worth it. It was a Spirit-wrought joy in Christ, produced by the indwelling Christ. It savors and cherishes all that Christ is in all His fullness, in everything the entire counsel of God says about Him. We have so much more to learn of Him. There is far more to Christ than Redeemer, Savior, Lord of lords, and King of kings. He is all this. He is even Prophet, Priest, and King. But this is just the beginning. There’s more to Him than this. O what an amazing thing it must’ve been to be on that Emmaus Road! Would it not be amazing, to have the entire Old Testament opened up to us by the Great Expositor Himself, and have our hearts burn within us! Nothing on this earth can give us this joy. Nothing! We could have the perfect lives by the standards of men. We could even be the winners of some outrageous lottery. But we will not have this kind of joy. Why not? Psalm 4:7 is why not! “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” O that you might study Christ more and even be consumed by Him that your joy be full and overflowing!
Fourth, the exemplary church trumpets the truth. Verse 8 speaks of how this church made noise for Christ, how it sounded forth the word beyond itself to the surrounding area, a land now burdened by a debt it probably will never pay, i.e. Greece. The truth trumpeted is not a truth, but the truth. Christ and Him crucified, a Person and Work who and which actually delivers from the righteous wrath to come, is that which is noised. The message is clear, the Person is real, and His work is effectual. The task is simple, the church is responsible, and the results are certain. God has a people. But faith comes by hearing, and hearing the word of Christ.
An Exemplary Church is a Converted Church
The next trait of an exemplary church is again basic. I look at verses 8-10 and see basically one thing: evidence of conversion. The exemplary church is a converted church. It copies godliness, suffers for the gospel, is Spirit-led, trumpets the truth, and is, obviously, and therefore converted. Now obviously, I’m using the word ‘church’ very loosely. By definition, the church is the company of the converted. But there’s such a thing, as you all know, as an unconverted, lifeless, church. I have no specific church or denomination in mind. But such churches, such fellowships know nothing of the things of which the apostle has been speaking. He praises this church for the fruit of the gospel. He gives thanks to God for its many graces, for its faith, love, and hope. The word came to them in power, clothed in the Holy Spirit. There was this radical change of heart and life. And if we take into account the local synagogue, the religious base of all things Jewish, was Paul’s mission field, then we can quickly surmise something of the kind of radical change that took place – at least in part of the Thessalonian church. Tradition, religious tradition, the kind with which Paul was very familiar, was rampant. But it was lifeless. Cold. Death even. But the gospel changed all that. When the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fullness and glory comes to a people clothed in the Holy Spirit and power, it changes things a great deal. It converts people. It transforms sinners. And it transforms churches. So, what is conversion? How does it look? Paul describes it with four words here.
The Converted Trust God
First word: The converted trust God. Conversion involves trust. In verse 8, Paul says that not only did the word sound forth from them, but also their faith in God had gone forth everywhere. This gives evidence for their exemplary character. In verse 7 we have this statement of how these believers were an example to all the believers in Macedonia. Then in verse 8 he tells of how he knows it to be such. The word sounded forth from them. But not only that; he says their faith in God went out everywhere, too. So we see there was a consistency between what they proclaimed and how they lived. They trumpeted the gospel of God. And they believed in the God of the gospel.
This is, as you all know, so vital for effective witness. Proclaim one thing and not live what is proclaimed and we lose any and all credibility. Forgive and indulge me for a moment. But we see this kind of thing everyday. Somebody says such and such is true, but his own actions deny his profession, his proclamation. Someone says he’s about this and he’ll do this and that. And when he is found to be less than what he says and doesn’t do what he says he will do, whenever he speaks, whatever he says, rings empty and untrue. But not so with the exemplary church! The converted church is a church that believes in its message. It lives its message for it trusts God. That is something it does. This is an action. We are very much active in our conversion. For you theologians out there, I’m not speaking of regeneration. The new birth is not the same as conversion. The new birth effects our conversion. That is the difference. We need to always be mindful of these distinctions. Otherwise, we end up being far less than biblical and thus faithful to the Scripture.
The Converted Have Turned to God
Second word: The converted have turned to God. Conversion involves turning to God. Verse 9 bears this out. What is it to turn to God? It’s nothing less than a dramatic and radical change in the course and direction of one’s life. The natural course of life is not Godward. It’s me-ward. This is MY life. I will do what I want. I will take what I seek. I will call the shots. If it doesn’t suit me, then I’ll take my glove and my bat and go home. If we are to help each other and love each other, then help me! Love me! Listen to Spurgeon hit this “out of the park:”
“Who are you that everything should happen just as you wish? Should the weather be fine simply because you want it to be…? Should you have the channels of trade turned in your direction when, if that were the case, scores of others would be beggared? Is everything in this world to be so arranged that you shall be the darling and pet of providence?”
I do believe conversion, in a very real and profound and needful sense, involves salvation from self. Conversion is turning from self, from me, from the small “I” to Another – which is why marriage is so sobering. But that’s another topic for another time. But for now, that Other is God – not the god of folklore or pop theology or of one’s imagination, but the God who is actually there. Do you know Him? Do you seek Him? Do you bow to His wishes? Or are you governed by self, wishing and even arranging things as you wish them to be? Are you your idol, in other words? Conversion involves turning from all idols to God. It’s easy to dismiss idol talk here, especially when we consider the idols of ancient Greece were a thing of ancient Macedonia. It’s very interesting however, to re-visit what Paul later observed in Athens at the Areopagus. Evidently the objects of worship, though made of gold, silver, and stone, were nonetheless images “formed by the art and imaginations of man.” Making God in our image is not a novelty. It’s not exclusive to modern man. The ancients were guilty of it. And the postmodern is surely guilty of it. We have no need to expound that here. The postmodern man is very relativistic. He is always about the business of fashioning a god in his own image, how he wishes God to be, according to his fancies, preferences, logic, imaginations, and philosophies. And this is true, of course, inside the church as well. We must never think such nonsense occurs on the outside. It’s everywhere. And we need to be on guard for it.
And here is the great qualifier, the tremendous descriptors that sets God apart from any and every idol. These believers, writes Paul, had turned to God from idols to serve the “living and true God.” This is the God of the Bible. He, unlike His imposters, is alive. He is not dead. He lives and moves and speaks and is active and powerfully so. He creates and re-creates. He speaks and it’s done. What can be said here that has not been said in this room? God lives and gives life! He is therefore in need of nothing. He is self-sufficient, dependent on absolutely no one or thing. Before life existed, He lived. He was. He is. And He shall forever be. He is not like any other so-called god. “They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:4-7). We resemble what, or who, we trust/worship. Put that in your pocket. Worship an idol, like self, and you become increasingly selfish. But worship the living God and you become increasingly like Christ. Which brings us to the descriptor ‘true.’ They turned to the living and TRUE God. The opposite of true here is probably not false, but ‘unreal.’ They turned from their idols to the real God! Who, or what, is this real God? Where is He? How has He revealed Himself? How has He, when did He, reveal Himself fully and completely in all His glorious perfections? Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the EXACT imprint of his nature…” (Heb. 1:3)! Christ is the living and true God. He is the fullness of deity in bodily form! To turn from idols to God then is to make a decisive break from worshiping self to worshiping Christ. But what is it to worship?
The Converted Serve God
Third word: The converted serve God. Conversion involves serving God. And to serve Him is to worship Him. Worship isn’t singing songs on a Sunday morning, not if the heart is empty. Worship can happen in song. But it’s far greater than that. And sometimes, and even most times, happens when no one really seems to notice or care. Worship is serving God. And the picture is one of the humble, loyal, committed, and undivided allegiance, if not devotion, of a slave to his master. What this looks like requires the reading of this entire Book, the one open before us. But let’s start a few pages to the left. In Colossians 3:5-6, Paul gives this exhortation to believers, to those in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells. This same Spirit, through the apostle’s pen, writes: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: [If Christ is in you and you in Him, this is for you, okay?] Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is IDOLATRY (Idols take on many forms!). On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”
The Converted Wait for the Final Revelation of God
Trusting God, turning to God, serving God: the fourth and final word is ‘the converted wait for the final revelation of God.’ Verse 10 is a great verse to land on one week before Easter Sunday. It continues Paul’s description of how these converts turned to God from idols, to serve Him “and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers from the wrath to come.” Conversion involves waiting, waiting for Christ to come back, expecting with great confidence mercy and deliverance will be had. He DELIVERS from the wrath to come. The Resurrection guarantees this. It secures deliverance because it demonstrates to us God’s complete satisfaction with His sacrificial death. Everyone for whom Christ died will be rescued without fail. The Titanic, as it were, will sink. But Christ is our lifeboat.
Trusting, turning, serving, waiting: this is conversion. And conversion marks an exemplary church. Are you so converted? Do you trust God? Are you actively turning from your idols? Are you serving Him? Do you, are you, waiting for His final appearance and all the tender mercies He will lavish upon you? I pray it is so. I pray these things are true of all, of everyone in this room.
Todd Braye (B. Mus., M.Div) is the pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Blacke, Alberta, Canada. After graduating from the Canadian Theological Seminary, he served a Baptist church in eastern Ontario for six years before coming home to Alberta. He has been SGBC’s pastor since October 1, 2005.