Towards Understanding the Local Church
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.” 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10
This is now week number three in these verses, verses telling of an exemplary church. As such, it is a church worthy of imitation. Paul gives thanks to God for it. He gives thanks for it in view of what marks it, of what it’s known for. Every church is known for something. We’ve already acknowledged that. Indeed, that is something we all know and recognize. But the question is, and must be, “What should a church be known for?” Many churches are known for a great number of things. Some are commendable and even biblical; others not so much. This church, our church, us, we are known for something. We, like every other church, are noted for certain traits. Specific characteristics mark us. We can’t avoid that; it’s impossible to not have a reputation. But it is possible to have the right kind of reputation, the kind that tells all who speak and hear of us that God is at work here. They may not like it. But they should not be able to deny it, not if we’re who we say we are, namely a biblical church.
So, I’m going to press this upon us. We’re not interested in simply putting in time and going through the motions on a Sunday morning. I want us to be all that we can be. I want us to be the best church we can be. Good enough isn’t good enough, not in my books, but more importantly not in the Book! Whatever we do – and that includes being the church – whatever we do, we are to do as unto the Lord. Surely, this speaks something of a pursuit of excellence. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying anything other than this: We together as a church, and responsible individuals within this body, must be engaged in such a pursuit. Our target is excellence. Our aim, I hope, is to be an exemplary church, marked by the same marks that marked the church Paul thanks and addresses in these verses.
Before moving on therefore, we’re going to set up camp. We’ve barely scratched the surface here. But I want to give more attention to what we’ve covered thus far. I’m not satisfied with raking and getting leaves; I want diamonds. So, we must dig. Our shovels rest on the soil of verses 4 and 5:
“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. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.”
First Things First: Correct Self-Understanding
It’s imperative to understand this one thing: before a church can be exemplary, before a church is known, and can be known, for the right things and for the right reasons, it must possess a right view of itself. It must understand who she is. A church, that is, the people, must see itself in light of what Scripture says about it. This only stands to reason. We cannot be known for what we do not understand ourselves to be. And we cannot act out of who we are unless we know precisely who we are! Take any number of things. Take sports, for example. In ice hockey, the left winger does what he does because he knows who he is. He knows his position and role. And he performs accordingly. The same is true for a quarterback or wide receiver. They do what they do, and they do it well, because they know who they are in the grand scheme of the game. The quarterback must know he’s a quarterback if he’s to be a quarterback, let alone an effective, exemplary quarterback.The same goes for a church. To be the church, to be an exemplary church, a church of excellence, there must be a right and proper view of itself, of what the church is. Such understanding is my primary aim today. Of course, to exhaust this in one sermon is impossible. And it’s not my intention to lose the flow of this passage in the details. But we must, I’m convinced, not miss what is here for us.
The Church is a Family
First, then, we must know the church, even a local fellowship, to be a family. Back in verse one, Paul speaks of ‘the church…in God the Father…’ In verse four, Paul calls them ‘brothers.’ The male-ness of the terminology here is not meant to exclude females.The church is a family of brothers and sisters. The language simply refers to siblings. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the church as the ‘household of God.’ The referent is very clear there; a household is a unit, one comprised of children, mother, and father.
So, the church is a family. It’s not a modern family – there is no nonsense of redefined marriage or anything of the sort. Neither is it a biological family – no one is born into it. Physical birth does not make one a child of God. But the church is a family. And as such, it cares for itself. You love your family, your sons and daughters. There is nothing you would not do for them. If they need something, if your daughter needs clothing for example, you make sure she has it. If your son needs money, you give it. I know you parents. You have invested and continue to invest much in your children. You’ve given and give much of yourself for their happiness and welfare. You love them so you discipline and not spare the rod. (I knew the leather belt across my backside maybe twice in my life. After that, all it took was a look.) You daily made sure there was food on the table. Moms, you cooked dinner every day. Dads, you worked your buns off. Both of you, because you loved your family, labored for your family. Do you understand? Love works. Love labors. Family life isn’t always easy. I need not tell you that. Problems of various kinds and to various degrees visit even the best of families. The same goes for the church. Yes, the church is the assembly of the saints, but it’s also a collision of sinners. But here’s the thing: love works. Love labors. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…” (1 Cor. 13:4-5). What kind of a family would a church family be if marked by this love? Can you imagine how pleasant and harmonious the family would be if its members did not ‘insist on [their] own way?’
You know the difference between a family and a restaurant. In a family, you serve. You serve. If there’s a need, you see to it. And it goes without saying that if you spend yourself on your family members, it can be emotionally, relationally, physically, and financially taxing at times. Families cost us. If we love our families, we spend ourselves on them. But at ‘The Keg’ we are the ones served. At McDonald’s, we are customers. We don’t give; we consume. We go to restaurants to be served, like billions of others. And all it costs us is a few dollars. We don’t spend ourselves there; restaurants don’t tire us! We use them because of that very fact; we like to be served. That’s the easy way to eat a meal. But the church is a family, beloved, not a steakhouse or burger joint! Do you understand? We care for our families. We spend ourselves on and with our families. We serve our families. And we never give up on our families. Family members serve each other – sometimes at real personal cost. That’s part of church life, too. An exemplary local church fellowship displays a “work of faith and labor of love.”
The Church is God’s Beloved
Secondly, the church is God’s beloved. It’s there in verse four also, “brothers loved by God.” God loves the brothers. God loves the brethren; He loves the church with a special love. We must not forget this. Neither must we ignore it, doubt it, downplay it, or de-emphasize it. That God loves the church, that He set His affections on her, that He set His affections on us, is a truth we must prize. What does it mean for God to love us? I was amazed when I looked the word up (beloved, ἀγαπάω). It means to cherish, or take pleasure in. Smell that. God cherishes, He takes pleasure in the church family! He takes his wallet, or his iPhone, and says, ‘Look! These are My kids! These are my sons and daughters!’ As a man prizes his daughter, as a woman treasures her diamond engagement ring, God holds dear and near the church.
‘How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure’
But isn’t the love of God bigger than that? Doesn’t God’s love have a broader scope than the church? Yes, it does. First of all, God the Father loves God the Son. John 3:35 – “The Father loves the Son…” And John 14:31 tells us the Son loves the Father. This is a perfect love, unblemished by any blemish, untarnished by even the slightest infraction.
God also loves and cares for all that He’s made:
Psalm 145:9 – “The Lord is good to all and His mercies are over all His works…(16) Thou dost open Thy hand, And dost satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
God even loves His enemies. “…for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the unrighteous and the righteous” (Mat. 5:45).
John 3:16. That God so loved the world that He gave His Son does not mean He so loved the elect. There may be those who try to make it say that. But that’s not what it says. That God loved the world here means that He loved an object full of badness. The ‘world’ (kosmos) in John refers to a wicked, rebellious, God-hating order of things, full of moral darkness. Don Carson states:
“In John 3:16 God’s love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such wicked people” (The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 17).
So, if God’s love is bigger and more complex than his love for the church, what makes his love for the church a big deal? One word: God’s love for his beloved church is a discriminating love. God loves. God is love. But he doesn’t love all equally and the same. He didn’t love Egypt the way he did Israel. He didn’t love Esau the way he did Jacob. He actually hated Esau. And He doesn’t love every sinner the same way equally. The love of God is indeed a difficult, complex thing. Psalm 5:5 says God hates the evildoer. John 3:16 says He loves a world that hates him. But the love he has for the brothers, for the family who is the church, moves God to mark them out, to set them apart before that chaos which existed in the beginning. Long before the sun rose on Day One, before times eternal, and in love, God predestined these brothers to be brothers. The apostle makes much of it elsewhere. He writes these familiar words:
“In love he predestined us for adoption as sons [that’s family language] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
But God did not “fall in love” with the church. He did not look upon her, notice how lovely she was, and then set out to woo her like some girl-crazy fool, infatuated with what he saw. There was nothing about the church, there is nothing about these brothers, this family, that attracted him. Those who God predestines in love to adoption, to be part of the household of faith, he predestines in spite of their putrid stench, their stiff necks, their rebelliousness, their hatred of God and His will. It’s no small thing what Paul says in the 3rd verse of Ephesians 2, how he describes both himself and those to whom he writes. He says they were dead in sins, corpses, rotting carcasses. They walked according to that spirit which works in the sons of disobedience. They were children of wrath, he says. It never ceases to astound me how the apostle includes himself in this. He was no slouch in morality or religion before God had mercy on him. He was a Jew of Jews, a shining star among the best of men. And yet he puts himself with those who walked according to the course of this world in the lusts of the flesh. Despite all his religious efforts and zeal, there was nothing about him which gained God’s attention. He was like the rest of men, worms crawling on their bellies, children of wrath, naked in their filthy unrighteousness.
How gracious and free and incomprehensible is the love of God for His beloved therefore! We look upon another and are so moved by some pleasing quality in that person that we eventually end up married! Not so with God! Not so with the Father! For there was and is nothing in His beloved, there was & is nothing in us that attracted Him. And yet He unconditionally and sacrificially loved and loves whom He loves. Which is to say, beloved in Christ, His love for you does not rest upon your accomplishments. It does not rest upon your supposed worthiness. It does not rest upon your imagined loveliness. It does not rest upon your will. It does not even rest upon your faithfulness to Him. It rests solely upon His sovereign grace and His eternal decree and the kind intention of His will.
Further, to be so loved is to be loved eternally. In Jeremiah 31:3, the Lord says to His beloved “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” In Psalm 103:17 we read “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him.” What this means is that the love of God is not like the love of man. For one day we might be the objects of a man’s love, but the object of his scorn the next. Not so with God. It is, as Spurgeon once wrote: “Jehovah changes not, he has mercy without end as well as without beginning. Never will those who fear him find that either their sins or their needs have exhausted the great deep of his grace [CHS].
Moreover, God loves His beloved with an invincible love:
“Who shall separate us [i.e. the called, the predestined, the elect] from the love of God? Shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? But in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.35-39).
What is that love God has for the church which is not a steakhouse, but a family? It’s a discriminating, cherishing, invincible love anchored not in, nor generated by, anything in you, not in your merit, not in our achievements, not in our performance, not in our repentance, not in our obedience, not in our loveliness, not in anything us, but only in his sovereign grace. It doesn’t depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
The Church is God’s Chosen Ones who ‘Know’ the Gospel
Finally, the church is God’s chosen ones who ‘know’ the Gospel.
“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 [or literally, “just as you know”] what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.”
I’m not going to rehearse everything from last time. It’s enough to remind you that in these verses, Paul speaks of the word preached. It came to them not in word only but in the power of the Holy Spirit so that it accomplished faith and conversion. They knew the Gospel, in other words. But they just didn’t know it, they knew it. I mean, they really knew it. They knew it and saw it and heard it and felt it just as they knew and saw what kind of men Paul and his companions were. It was that real to them. As sure as you know what kind of man I am, they knew the gospel; they knew the atonement and Christ crucified for them!
There are two kinds of knowing. Everyone knows about illness and disease, like cancer. We read about it and see people live and die and take their last breath on account of it. But who knows cancer, really, but the one who actually has it? No one does! You don’t really know cancer until you taste it and it radically alters your life! The word came to these people in such a way that they knew the gospel just as they knew Paul and his sidekicks among them.
I began this way: I said it’s imperative to understand this one thing. Before a church can be exemplary, before a church is known, and can be known, for the right things and for the right reasons, it must possess a right view of itself. It must understand who she is. Do you see our church in this light? Is our church your family, a family marked by mutual service? Or is it a drive-thru burger joint where we place our order, pay for the meal, and then drive away? Is it a family upon whom the Father has set His invincible, eternal, and incomprehensible gracious affection and thus cherishes, and values with the blood of His one and only, unique Son, with radical, Spirit of Christ-invading, life-changing, spiritual fruit-producing results?
‘Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!’
Pastor Braye studied at Canadian Theological Seminary and the University of Alberta. Presently he labors for “Pastoral Leadership Development at Action International Ministries” In the past he served as pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church and Beckwith Baptist Church. He is From Edmonton, Alberta