Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
““The Word at Work in Believers””
13” And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
1 Thessalonians. 2:13-16
“Like ships at sea, true Christians have their storms; but mere professors, like pictured galleys on the canvas, ride on an unruffled ocean” (CHS).
We resume our studies where we ended last time. You recall how, in the very last phrase of verse 13, Paul makes this statement. He asserts that the word received is that word ‘which is at work in you believers.’ Before we press any further, I want to give greater attention to this. There’s something the apostle expresses here, something we must not miss. It’s this idea, first of all, that the Word is in the believer. Those to whom Paul writes had received the Word of God. Paul preached it to them. He spoke the Word of Christ to them. Whether he was in the synagogue or on the job making tents, this is what he did. He spoke. And some received it, lapping it up, drinking it all in. And here Paul says that what he preached, now works in these believers.
We must learn this crucial point. We must see where the Word of God is, where it dwells. For the believer, it’s most assuredly on a page, captured in ink. But that’s not all. For the believer there’s more to it. There’s an intimate relationship between the Word and the believer. Jesus even speaks of His words abiding in His disciples. “If you abide in Me, “ He said, “and My words abide in you…” James spoke in terms of the Word as having taken root in the heart and soul. He writes, exhorting his readers to “… receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” The Word is a seed implanted in the hearts of believers. It’s not just on the outside. It gets on the inside. It gets under their skin and finds its way to the core of their being. Paul even writes elsewhere, exhorting believers to let the Word of Christ “richly dwell within” them (Col. 3:16).
But what we really need to dwell on and press further is this whole thing about the Word working in those who believe. It isn’t dormant or dead. It’s alive, living, and active. God’s Word is powerful. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. To those who are perishing, the Word of the cross is foolishness. But to those being saved it’s the power of God. God’s Word is powerful for the destruction of fortresses, every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of Him. Jeremiah says the Word is like a hammer which shatters a rock. Hebrews says Christ upholds all things by the word of His power. Yes, it’s true. We are justified apart from works, but not apart from a word that doesn’t work.
So there’s something tremendous going on beneath the surface. Something big. Really big. The power of the Word is at work in believers. ‘Well,’ says one, ‘How can that be?’ He doubts it because of his experience, what he’s seen, or what he hasn’t seen. All too often he sees Tom, Dick, and Harry going and coming from church, mixing with the church folk one day a week (or maybe less than that). He might even hear them talk great sounding things, making all kinds of claims about how Christ has made all the difference. They may even speak as though they had great affections for Christ, proclaiming that His cause is theirs. The trouble is their words are empty. And everyone knows that. Everyone sees what truly is, what Tom, Dick, and Harry’s real affections are, what they really and truly treasure. How they spend themselves tells that story. What they love is not what they claim to love. What they spend their time and money on is what they (what we!) truly treasure. The choices they make everyday, day in and day out, speak volumes. And those volumes and their lips don’t add up. You no doubt have come across this sort of thing in your many years. The problem with the Tom, Dick, and Harrys of the church is that though they may carry the Word under their arm, it does not dwell in the core of their being. It might be in their heads, but it’s nowhere near their hearts. In other words, the Word of God, the truth of Christ, the gospel of Christ in all its glory is, in their case, inconsequential.
On the other hand, this Word is indeed consequential for real believers, like those to whom Paul writes in this epistle. What I mean by that, that the Word is consequential, is that it actually, effectually produces what it calls for, namely, and concisely, a living, active faith and transformation unto Christlikeness. But it’s not the naked Word which does this. The naked Word avails nothing. The Word minus the Spirit equals nothing. No consequence. No power. Nothing happens. No ears. No eyes. No singing. No rejoicing. No growth in the grace and knowledge of Christ. No real affections for Christ. No starving for the things of God. It’s the Word dressed in the fine robes of the Spirit which is consequential. The Spirit of God is the Mover. He causes what the Word commands!
How Paul Knew the Word was Working in Them
We must now ask the question concerning how Paul knew the gospel was working in them. Verse 14 tells us: “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.” What I long for us to see together is that the gospel is not merely about the cancellation of guilt, the forgiveness of sins, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This Word Paul preached, which was received, which thus works in those who receive it, produced a great change in those who received it. This is what we need to see here. That’s what we mean when we say it’s consequential. The Word that works within works itself out. Paul knew the Word was working in them because they looked and behaved very differently. He says they became imitators of a certain group of people. What is interesting is what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say he knew because of what they themselves professed to be. What they themselves claimed wasn’t the thing. Nor does he list any number of things, good things, needful things, including things like personal bible study, baptism, generosity, and even knowing right from wrong. What he actually says here is far more substantial, far more profound, and undeniably speaks of true faith in Christ.
Paul knew because they became imitators of the churches in Judea. They became imitators of the Judean churches. These new converts in Thessalonika looked like converts in Judea. That’s simple. But it’s not as if they set out to copy a certain kind of behavior. I don’t think that’s what Paul conveys here. It’s not like what any number of folks do everyday; someone makes some impression on them and so they do what they can to emulate him. I seriously doubt that’s what happened. Not that such a thing is bad. It’s a good thing to copy the right picture. Paul even exhorts the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ. But here the idea is simply this: As a consequence of the gospel working in them, they sounded and looked like a relatively small group of people – the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. Paul is very specific. He almost labors to ensure he’s not misunderstood: ‘The churches of God in Christ Jesus.’ Boy, there’s a ton to unpack here. But it is enough to say Paul is not holding up just any gathering or local fellowship. He doesn’t leave it at ‘churches of God.’ No. The churches to which he refers are “in Christ Jesus.” This in-ness is what defines them. It determines who they are, who they worship, what they do, and in what they boast.
But the key is this very thing. Paul explains himself further: “You, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews.” They looked like the others in Christ, the Judean churches, because they suffered for the faith, for their faith. This is how these churches looked the same. This is what they shared, this common experience of suffering for the cause of Christ. What Paul is saying is that suffering – not all suffering, but suffering for one’s faith in Christ – proves the Word is at work. Let me put it provocatively: Suffering for Christ is a positive consequence of the Word working in believers. Where the Word so works, persecution is sure to be also.
This is so intensely Biblical. It’s woven throughout the Scripture. The apostles make much of it. Like the prophets before them, they knew it first hand. But we must not think of such hardship within a narrow context. Speaking up about Christ to unbelievers is one thing. But it isn’t the only thing. The apostles, and these Thessalonians, spoke much about Christ. He was in their mouths and on their lips. But Christ was also their walk. They were allied to Him. This was an allegiance which put them at odds with everyone else in so many ways. And so Paul tells Timothy that all who desire to live godly will be persecuted. There’s no ‘if’ about this, only ‘will.’ They turned from idols to God, from everything their Thessalonikan family members and friends cherished, like “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things (like convenience and leisure)” to God. That would’ve meant division, radically different world views, and opposition of all kinds and intensities. Conclusion: If you want a comfortable and easy life, don’t become Christian. Become an astronaut or something!
The Parable of the Sower
4 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The Purpose of the Parables
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:1-20)
How can we know if the Word is working in us? One answer, one solid, Biblical, crucial, tell all answer, is suffering for it. Those in whom the Word works take hits, sometimes massive hits, for their allegiance to it. Doubtlessly, Paul says what he says here to furnish some encouragement. This young church, having taken some hits, no doubt was buttressed by knowing they weren’t alone. This is actually the common experience of every faithful church. It just comes with the territory.
“Like ships at sea, true Christians have their storms; but mere professors, like pictured galleys on the canvas, ride on an unruffled ocean” (CHS).
The Kinds of Suffering
The suffering suffered came from those who did some nasty things. These Thessalonians, writes Paul, ‘suffered the same things from [their] own countrymen as they did [i.e. as the Jewish churches did] from the Jews.” It’s remarkable to observe how both the Jews and Gentiles ravaged the church. It didn’t matter if they had the oracles of God or not; both camps despised the Word of God! Jew was against Jew. Non-Jew despised non-Jew. Countrymen were against their own countrymen. I wonder if kindred were set against kindred on account of Jesus and God’s Word! That would be a very painful thing; nobody wants to see a son or daughter against father-in-law or even mother! But did Jesus not speak of how he came not for peace, but division? Indeed he did:
“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53).
Do not take this to mean Jesus came to rip families apart. Too many Scriptures are against that idea. But do take it to mean that before all is said and done, families will split on account of Christ, the Word! Suffering comes in so many different ways. So, if close relationships are lost due to your allegiance to God’s Word, be encouraged. His Word is at work in you!
The Jews, Paul writes, “killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets.” By a sword they devoured their own prophets, Jeremiah writes. What do the prophets and the Lord have in common? Both bear witness to the truth. Both speak the very word and words of God. Both were Jews. And both, writes Paul, died by Jewish hands. Of all the people in the world who would do this! Of all the people who would kill the very messengers of God who spoke His Word, and even testified of God’s Word in the flesh, the One of whom their Scriptures spoke, in whom all their Scriptures are summed up, and filled up! If they persecuted Him this way, if they killed His predecessors, what are their followers, those in whom the Word works, to expect? Those in whom the Word works take hits for their allegiance to it, especially from those allied to their traditions, their historical confessions, even their established, accepted views. We do not need to go far to see Christians killed because of their faith, do we. Read a newspaper. Watch a newscast on television. Men and women are brutally slaughtered for their allegiance to the Word! We don’t need to make the Bible relevant! It is relevant!
Paul carries on. He says ‘they drove us out.’ This again is historical. It no doubt refers to the opposition encountered at Thessalonica. The Jews had become jealous by Paul’s ministry. So they gathered some men around them, some of the ‘rough and tumble,’ and chased them out of town, in effect. This is how those who both represent Christ and speak His Word are treated. Paul and Silas took hits. Most mistreated and rejected them. The religious establishment drove them out of town. Interesting isn’t it?
The Jews Described
Then Paul describes this particular group of Jews. He says they displease God and oppose all mankind. This is, among other things, a great case of irony. The Jews took great pride in the Law of Moses. They thought themselves to be the ones who in fact pleased God. After all, God chose them. They were God’s special people. Through Moses, God gave them His Law. Therefore they knew God’s revealed will and so thought themselves to be pleasing God. But they weren’t. They thought they were serving God, doing His bidding, protecting his interests, His truth. We can only imagine with fascination the goings on in Paul’s head when he wrote this! He must’ve seen himself in this. Remember a character called Saul? Fine ‘man of God’ wasn’t he, ravaging the church. But here he is, on the other side, having been lavished with grace.
But back to these Jews; they displease God, and they oppose all mankind. So much for loving their neighbor – that too went out the window. How they opposed everybody else is quite astonishing. It wasn’t a direct thing, but indirect. They opposed the rest of the world, Paul writes, “by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved.” They weren’t a blessing, but a curse to the nations. They stood in rebellion against the redemptive plan of God – that He would save all mankind by a Jew, Jesus, the Word made flesh.
The End Results
For these Jews, those who oppose, who did oppose and rebel and reject and drive out and kill, their end was horrific. Their actions were not overlooked or ignored. Two things: (1) God gave them enough rope that they eventually hung themselves. Paul puts it this way: He says they do this so as to always fill up the measure of their sins. In other words, these Jews, those who reject the Word and those allied to it and speak it and live it, are making sure their sins are sinned to the very last drop of sin. They’re filling their cup to the brim, as it were. Sounds frightfully consequential to me. (2) These Jews knew the wrath of God. It has come upon them at last. That is what Paul said. He does not say it will come upon them but that it has come upon them, in the first century. Perhaps Paul is thinking of the great dread and misfortune the Jews experienced about the time he wrote this epistle. During the Passover in the year 49 A.D., some 20-30,000 Jews were reportedly crushed to death. The Jewish historian Josephus speaks of it. He writes of a furious uproar in Jerusalem. A Roman soldier reportedly made a lewd gesture in view of the crowds gathered for the feast. In the commotion and confusion that followed, the Jews, fearing for their lives, ended up trampling each other to death (Josephus, Antiquities 20. 105-12).
What then are we to make of all this? Let me end our time in the Word by suggesting six things:
(1) Our confidence must be in the Word. When clothed in the Spirit, and when that Word dwells within together with the indwelling Christ, it works. It is a very consequential thing. Therefore, we must be devoted to it. There are thousands of helps available to us in our walk with Christ. There are many books, many self-proclaimed experts, many authors, many paper popes. But they’re not the thing. The Word is the thing. The Word works. Of this we must be confident.
(2) We are given cause for self-examination. We’ve not done this for a long time; I’ve not pressed it. But once in a while, it’s needful. We must ask ourselves if the Word is indeed working in us. Have we taken any hits for it? Or is our allegiance superficial, so that when it gets hot we run to the hills? The furnace of persecution is where the truth of one’s allegiance is discovered. If the Word is working in us, then like these Thessalonians, we will stand.
(3) We are given cause for encouragement. Is it not good to know that push back and hostility might very well be a sign that the Word is in fact in us and that what we’re doing is right? Think of all the stuff we’ve been through as a church in the last seven years. The temptation is to think if they hate us and leave us, it’s our fault, that we did something wrong. Maybe. We’re not sinless. But maybe the opposite is true. Maybe, just maybe, if God’s Word be true, we did something, and are doing something right. That’s just one example.
(4) When we suffer for the Word, we’re not alone. We’re actually in good company, in very good company. They killed Christ. He took a big hit. They killed the men of God of old who spoke the Word. They drove Paul out. They afflicted the Thessalonians. Why? The Word is why. They gave witness to it.
(5) Those who punish Christ’s people will themselves be punished. Those who reject His Word and those in whom it works will themselves be rejected. God cares for his own. And as a God of justice, the scales will indeed be balanced.
(6) The religious establishment will often be at odds with, if not persecute to some degree, the true Biblical Gospel. For Paul, it was the Jews. In modern history, many religious groups have done the same. Perhaps the greatest example is the Roman Catholic Church with its indictments against those who teach salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We insist that salvation is through faith alone because our sole authority in these matters is the Bible alone. Of course, there are many other aberrations and deviations of the Roman Catholics I could mention. But that is not my aim here. My purpose here is to point out a contemporary religious establishment at odds with Biblical truth and those given to it, those in whom it works. Let’s be aware of such.
For His glory and our joy, amen.
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