“An Exemplary Church (4)”
1 Thess. 1:2-10
We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers;
3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father,
4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you;
5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation 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 the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.
9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God,
10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.
The current push of our studies has to do with this question: What should a church be known for? We’ve seen that the church to which the apostle writes here in these verses, is an exemplary one. There is much here to be commended. And Paul begins his correspondence to them expressing how he gives thanks to God for it. And as we have seen, his prayers are buttressed with the conviction that those for whom he gives thanks are among the beloved and chosen of God. He so prays because this church knows the gospel with a personal, experiential knowledge; it came to them not by way of a naked word, but one clothed in power. And in verse 6, Paul continues to express reason for his conviction.
An Exemplary Church Copies Godliness
Verse 6 – “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord…”
This church, its membership, i.e. the persons themselves, patterned their life together, and indeed their entire lives, after a certain kind of man. They became imitators of Paul. They copied the likes of Silas and Timothy, and even Christ Himself. This is so very crucial. Pay attention to this, beloved! When the word comes to a people, clothed in power and in the Holy Spirit, this is the effect it has. People change. People change radically. People stop imitating the godless and choose instead to follow the godly.
This is God’s will. The apostle exhorts such imitation a number of times. He exhorts the Corinthians to follow him. ‘Be imitators of me,’ he tells them. Follow me. Live as I live. Walk as I walk. Do as I do. The reason he sent Timothy to that church was to remind them of his ways in Christ, just as he taught in every church (1 Cor. 4:16ff). Why he says what he says is made abundantly clear to us. He tells the Corinthians in chapter 11 to be imitators of him, even as he is an imitator of Christ. It isn’t that he was telling everyone to copy him because he was, in and of himself, worthy of imitation, not at all. Christ is key in all this. Paul was saying copy him because he copies, he mimics, Christ.’
To the Philippians, he makes the exact same appeal. “Brethren,” he writes, “join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross, whose end is their destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Phil. 3:17ff.).
To Timothy himself, to the pastor of the Ephesian church, Paul writes these words: “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1st Tim. 4:12). Pastor Tim was not called to be a super believer. Pastor Tim was not called to be in some elite class of Christian. He was simply called to be an example of what it looks like to be a believer! He was to show himself ‘an example of those who believe!’ It isn’t as if elders are to be the only ones above reproach, every believer must be so. It’s not as if elders alone are to be the husband of one wife, every believing man is to be. It isn’t that elders alone are not to be drunkards, all believers are not to be. What a church needs more than anything else outside the Scriptures themselves (of course), is godly example, illustrations in the flesh of what it means and looks like to believe in Christ and pursue righteousness and live for things not of this earth.
But we must be mindful of this very thing. The way Paul speaks of this imitation is very telling. He describes it as something that happens as a result of a certain kind of preaching. It’s a preaching attended by the effectual and powerful operations of the Holy Spirit. They became imitators of Paul and the Lord as a result of the word coming to them with full conviction. The Spirit of God did a tremendous thing with and in these individuals. I press upon you once again that very thing that happens when one becomes a believer. God sends forth the Spirit of His Son into his heart. Christ therefore resides there, in the core of the believer’s being. In His Spirit, Christ is etched, inscribed within. Christ, by His Spirit, governs the believer. He leads in paths of righteousness. And He effects things like the imitation of Himself.
The great aim of God in the church, and for the church, is our holiness, our separateness from the things of earth. God’s tremendous purpose is to purify and cleanse his people that they might reflect more and more the Person of His Son. To whom do we look to see that lived out? After what, after who, do you pattern your life? Have you even thought of it that much? We must think about these things, beloved. Our days are short. Our lives are but mere vapors. Life IS short. Death IS sure. The older I get, the weightier that becomes. I lay in bed one night this past week, with eyes leaking at the thought. The question demands a response: “Who’s my example? Who am I becoming? Who am I imitating?
Listen! This is but one reason we cannot live without the church. Isolationism, rugged individualism, absenteeism: these things are lethal. We must be as these were. We cannot live as we ought to live if we do not associate with the godly. Corrupt company corrupts. We become who we associate with. We need godly examples. We need to copy them and speak with them and share life together with them. This is the biblical model. This becomes abundantly clear in the next chapter. We cannot read the first 12 verses and think a little bit of Piper and a few quotes from MacArthur, or a sermon on mp3 once a week, will do. As wonderful as technology is, with all that is available to us with a simple click of a mouse, that just doesn’t cut it. We can’t imitate John Piper. He isn’t here. We don’t know him. We only know who we imagine him to be.
The church to whom Paul writes here did not have to imagine. They had flesh and blood examples of godliness, examples described in concrete terms. Chapter 2 and verse 10: “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.”
Paul, Silas, and Timothy were sanctifying influences on the church. They lived devoutly, righteously, and blamelessly, and they urged the same.
An Exemplary Church Suffers For The Gospel
But exactly how this church copied Paul and the others is described in these terms (v6): “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit…” I must remind you: here Paul is telling how he knows the ones to whom he writes are elect, chosen and loved of God. He knows because of how the word came to them – powerfully, effectually, clothed in the Spirit of God. And he knows also because they became imitators of those who loved God and Christ, and not the things of earth. And here we have this great descriptive, telling us how precisely they copied those who loved Christ. They received the word in unhappy, far less than joyful circumstances. They received it in much tribulation. Before we go any further, we must make note of this obvious fact: the word of God is front and center in all this. An exemplary church is marked, defined by, and focused upon the word of God. This is so basic. But we must not miss it. Where the Word is not, neither is the church (let alone an exemplary church). And here, in this Thessalonian church, the word was received in much tribulation. They were hard pressed and distressed by their own countrymen. They were the targets of no small amount of hostility and opposition, why? It was because of their new faith. It was because of their stance for and belief in the Christ of the Bible. Thessalonica was a very religious city. Its people worshiped a plethora of gods. Zeus, Artemis, and a host of other pagan idols I care not to describe, formed the dreadful complexity of religious life. Religious tradition and loyalty to these gods were highly valued. These were great virtues. You just did not rock the boat or question the religious status quo. This was so, at least in part, because these gods were considered to be patrons (benefactors) of both the city and its families. To break from these gods, to turn from them, was therefore, no mere private, individual thing. It had public, civic ramifications. It would be tantamount to living in Fort McMurray and protesting against the oil sands. You just don’t do that, not without personal cost. But that’s precisely the kind of thing they did, and they suffered for it.
I doubt very much that I need to tell this group how suffering for the gospel is part and parcel of following Christ. It’s part of Christian life. Live for Christ (I mean LIVE for Christ, IN THE OPEN) and you pay for it. There are many, many Scripture texts which could be quoted here. I limit myself to just two.
“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of
the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose
you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John15:18-19).
So, if the world loves you, be afraid; you might very well be of it. But f the world hates you, that’s good. That’s very good. It might very well be proof of your election, and your faithfulness to the gospel.
“After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they
returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the
disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many
tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts 14:21-22).
So, an exemplary church suffers for the gospel. Which also means an exemplary church may not feel like it is! It most likely feels beat up a lot.
An Exemplary Church is Led By the Spirit
But in spite of this, despite the opposition because of the word, notice that they received the word not with despair, but (verse 6) “with the joy of the Holy Spirit! “ If an exemplary church copies godliness, and suffers for the gospel, an exemplary church is also led by the Spirit. This is what makes a church effective. This is the very key to endurance. There is no deeper life or higher life; there’s just spiritual life, life in the Spirit. This is what makes suffering for truth and Christ attractive and confounds on-looking unbelievers. “Christian people,” writes Lloyd-Jones, “too often seem to be perpetually in the doldrums and too often give the appearance of unhappiness and lack of freedom and absence of joy. There is no question at all but that this is the main reason why large numbers of people have ceased to be interested in Christianity.” If this wasn’t enough, the old 17th century English Puritan Richard Baxter fires a round between our eyes. He wrote:
“I desire the dejected Christian to consider, that by his heavy and uncomfortable life, he seems to the world to accuse God and His service, as if he openly called Him a rigorous, hard, unacceptable Master, and His work a sad unpleasant thing.”
But we look to the Scriptures and we see a far different thing. Again, any number of texts can be rehearsed here, all proving and showing that joy is a common experience of NT believers, despite the hatred and hardship they knew. How can that be? How can it be when people hate you because you love what and who they despise, you know joy? Joy in suffering on account of the gospel marked this church! Why?
I cannot explain it. I can only point to it. I can only state the obvious. This church was a Spirit-led church. It knew that joy which is the fruit of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. It came about on account of their conversion, when the word came to them in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. It came about when Paul preached freedom to them, that Christ died to set them free from slavery to idols, and that in Christ and because of Christ they were unshackled from the bonds of sin. In the court of heaven they were not guilty. With all they had done, and everything they would do yet which offended God, Christ bore all the offenses on his back. Christ bore their sins in his body on a tree, that they might die to sin, and live in freedom, freedom to live for righteousness, to the only true God.
What then, is this joy, this fruit of the Spirit? I submit to you that spiritual joy is a sense of happiness on account of the Gospel. It takes no large amount of reflection to see how the Gospel fits into this. Righteousness, that perfect righteousness God requires of all men, even perfect obedience, imputed by faith, not earned by works of law, not by attempting to do what the Law demands; Justification by the work and death of Christ, not by the works and ceremonies of men; Acceptance with God grounded upon what God did in Christ, not by what I must do for Christ; that holy perfection demanded by the Most High, those righteous robes required for that great wedding feast granted as a grace upon grace in Christ. When the thief died on the cross, he had but just believed; he had never done a single good work. But where did he go? He ought to have been thrown into that dreadful Lake. But instead the Saviour said to him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Why? Because the ground of the man’s admission into Paradise was perfect. Christ is perfect. We affirm with the hymn writer that “The moment a sinner believes And trusts in his crucified God, His pardon at once he receives; Salvation in full, through his blood.” Is this not cause for joy? It is! It is for the one who knows himself to be a sinner worthy only of the death of all deaths!
This joy cannot be manufactured. There is nothing we can do to produce this within ourselves. Spiritual joy, happiness in the Gospel, is generated within by the One who indwells. No thing, like ink on a page, or no one, like any number of preachers, can make you full of this joy. But I pray each of you has it and knows it. Exemplary churches are known for it.
Conclusion: What If I Don’t Have It?
What if I don’t have it? First things first: You may not have it because the Spirit of Christ is not in you. You may not know this Spirit wrought joy because you know not Christ. You may know your Bible, but so does Satan, and he’s still a devil. You might be baptized; but so are many false professors and even infants. You might even be the most zealous man or woman for God; so was a fella by the name of Paul, once known as Saul. According to the Law, he was blameless! But one day when he wasn’t looking, Christ, the substance, showed up. And he knew better. All the religious education and bible study, as crucial as those things are, are NOTHING if you don’t KNOW Christ! Do you, beloved, KNOW Christ? Is he in your heart? Do you commune with him? Do you know Him as the lover of your soul? Do you savor Him like nothing else? Do you have any idea whatsoever what Paul meant when he said “Christ LIVES in me?” Until we can say that with conviction, then maybe we ought to keep our mouths shut regarding our profession.
On the other hand, believers leak. That’s why Paul says, to believers ‘Don’t intoxicate yourself with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.’ How do we do that? How does a believer BE FILLED? The same way a water jug is filled. The jug doesn’t do anything at all, EXCEPT receive the liquid. Does Paul mean for us to be inactive in this? I don’t think so. I think he hints at what he means with these words (Eph. 5):
“So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father.”
Somehow, the being filled happens in connection with the speaking and singing and making melody and giving thanks for all things, including the death of deaths in the death of Christ.
What should a church be known for? What should we be known for? That’s the question. Today’s answer is simple: We should be known for imitating godliness, suffering the gospel, and joy on account of being led by the Spirit. May God make it so.