“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”
Often overlooked are the opening verses of NT epistles. Such neglect is rather unfortunate. Perhaps failure to serious take note of them is due to the notion that such verses convey nothing of benefit. After all, one might conclude points of authorship, readership, and the location of the original audience, cannot possibly be worth any study. Surely, these are merely mundane matters, yielding nothing more than historical points.
However, if what the apostle writes elsewhere is embraced, this approach will be unthinkable. “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Therefore, all Scripture is in fact profitable for teaching, including the first verses, even if, at first glance, they seem otherwise. It falls upon us thus, to take note of verse number one.
Now, it’s not my aim this morning to paint the background story, at least not in any detail. You may do that for yourselves beginning with Acts chapter 16. You will find there Timothy hooking up with Paul and Silvanus (Silas). Off they go throughout the land, through the region of Phrygia and Galatia into Macedonia to a city called Philippi. They meet up with some women. They spoke to the women. The Lord opened hearts. There were baptisms. And before all was said and done there was, for the faithful missionaries, a night in prison, in the stocks. But the church was spreading. The gospel was advancing.
Upon their release, they found themselves in the rather large and influential city of Thessalonica. As per his custom, Paul went into the local synagogue, engaged the Jews, reasoning with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving to them all about the Christ. Some believed. Others were jealous, forming a mob, causing a great uproar in the city. This is what happens when the word is preached. Some believe it and embrace it. Others get angry and hostile. But the church was spreading. The gospel was advancing. It had come to Thessalonica. And, as we shall see by way of this epistle, it took deep roots. This was a great church. It was a great point of encouragement for Paul, for the one who, at tremendous personal cost, spent his life for the Church. And so he, with his companions, writes to it. And the first thing he says to it, the first thing he does, is give it gospel greetings. He gives it sweet, blessed, sincere, gospel greetings, dripping in the sauce of Christ’s love. These greetings come from 3 gospel men to one gospel people and contain 2 gospel words
Three Gospel Men
The three gospel men are Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. In all the world, nothing was more important to these men than the gospel. They risked life and limb for the cause of Christ. Their commitment to the word of truth and its advancement was unquestionable. These men were, consequently, dangerous weapons in the hand of God.
Three men. First man. We know Paul. Word has it he wasn’t much to look at. He was unimpressive to gaze upon apparently. Small in stature, perhaps bald, he evidently had eyesight issues, and was plagued with a thorn in the flesh. He rather made much of his weakness than boast of any perceived strength.
Religiously, he once had great passion and zeal for his ancestral traditions. He clung feverishly to the shadows of his fathers, persecuting those who embraced the substance, who is Christ. But now, now he boasted in the cross. Now he made much of and gloried in the cross, that which crushes any system of works, human effort, or Law. The cross preaches that which Paul once despised, namely this: You cannot earn God’s approval. No effort, no work, no law can ever merit God’s approval and make His face shine upon us. This is what drove Paul. This message compelled him to do what he did, even to risk everything for his Christ. He knew his calling, his vocation, calling himself Christ’s slave. By this he declared himself to be controlled by Christ. Christ was his master in every way possible. The love of Christ compelled him to serve him, to obey him, to live for him, even when it cost him. He was viewed as the scum of the earth. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine walking down Aberdeen Street or wherever, and because you serve Christ, and love Christ, you’re the target of such animosity?
But Paul was more than this. It must never escape our notice that Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ, that he held a foundational, unrepeatable office, vested with a tremendous amount of authority. In other words, what we have before us, captured in ink, etched on paper, is not merely the words of a man, but the word and words of the Man, Jesus Christ! It is impossible to overstate the fact, especially in this day and age, that these words bear divine authority, and they in toto, are the product of Paul speaking from God as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit. Even a cursory reading of the NT bears that out. One need only to look at the 13th verse in chapter two of this epistle. Paul makes the claim that the word heard from their lips was really God’s word. We must not ever lose sight of that fact.
Silvanus, or Silas as he was sometimes known, is man number two. Luke describes him in Acts 15. Aside from being Paul’s travelling companion, Silas, says Luke, was among the leading men at Jerusalem. And, as he was entrusted with delivering a very important New Covenant, Gospel message from the elders to the Gentiles, faithful, reliable, dependable, are words that must surely describe him. However, there is another fact about him which we must grasp. In Acts 15:32 Silas is called a prophet. Luke makes it explicit, stating:
And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers…”
That there were prophets in NT times is unquestionable. And like the apostles, the prophets held an office that was foundational. It was also a ministry that came to an end by the end of the first century. The function of a NT prophet? Was it to speak all matter of nonsense? Not by a long shot. Paul makes it clear. Ephesians 3 beginning at verse 4:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
So, that’s it. The function of the NT prophet – revealed to them was this great mystery, that Gentiles, through the gospel are “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus.” Jews no longer were the advantaged ones. The playing field was leveled. Jews and non-Jews were, by means of the gospel, ‘members of the same body.’ Through the gospel, Gentiles, non-Jews were no longer strangers, but fellow members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Himself being the cornerstone.
The third man was Timothy. Timothy was Paul’s “beloved child,” his “true child in the faith,” his mentoree, a fellow worker, a doer of the Lord’s work. With Paul, he was God’s co-worker, Christ’s slave, a brother sent ‘to establish and exhort in the faith.’ He was not an apostle. Nor was he a prophet. Nor was he, at this time, a pastor. That would come later. But two things stuck me as I prepared for today. First thing: Timothy gained the confidence of an apostle (Paul). And the apostle (Paul) endorsed him. Before it was all said and done, Timothy did become a pastor. Paul, the apostle did entrust him with guarding the good deposit, the truth, the gospel. Before it was all over, Timothy did follow Paul’s teaching, Paul’s conduct, Paul’s aim in life, Paul’s faith, Paul’s patience, love, steadfastness, persecutions and sufferings. Timothy was, in other words, a committed man, sold out to the faith!
Well, what are we to make of all this? Allow me to submit to you this, that as a group, these gospel men were nothing at all like the intellectuals and philosophers around them. Neither did they resemble the religious establishment and rabble of their day. These were radical men, men who marched to the beat of a different drummer. Why this was the case is very simple. All three were, first of all, converted. Christ was real to them. They knew experientially, at the core of their being, what is was they were preaching. This wasn’t a mere intellectual enterprise to them. They actually believed and had real convictions about what they were preaching. There was, in other words, no questioning their integrity. They meant what they said, and said what they meant.
Furthermore, and this bears repeating, that as a group, there’s much authority here. Paul, an apostle of Christ, the One to Whom all authority has been given in heaven and earth, and Silas, one to whom the very Spirit of God had revealed the mystery of Christ – do we dare not listen to what they have to say? Do we dare pit our favorite celebrity pastors, our pet confessions and systems, even our own opinions, against such divine weight and authority? Let no authority but Scripture and Scripture alone determine our doctrine, our walk, our faith, our practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s commentaries of Calvin, the Canons of Dordt, or the rants of John Hagee; if it doesn’t line up with Scripture, flush it.
One Gospel People
Three gospel men to one gospel people.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul never writes to unbelievers. Did you know that? He never writes to those outside the church. You will search in vain to find a NT epistle beginning thus: ‘Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the unbelieving.’ You won’t find that because it doesn’t exist. He always writes to believers, to this church or that church, to this believer or that believer.
Church, by definition, is an assembly of believers. It’s the company of the converted. That’s what a local church is, like the one Paul writes to here. It’s not a therapy group. It’s not a social club. Amusement is not its goal. Biological family ties have nothing whatsoever to do with it. In fact, because the church is, as Paul elsewhere says, a pillar and buttress of the truth, family ties may actually be stressed if not altogether severed.
On the other hand, the church is the household of God. Christ is its head and Shepherd. Elders are given the responsibility to under-shepherd. Deacons are the waiters of the church. And the purpose of the church is to display the glory and worth of God. Paul calls the church a pillar and buttress of the truth. Think about that. Think about what a pillar does; it holds up so as to support and put on display. Truth is to be held up. Truth is to be buttressed, and not any sentimental, emotional attachments. The glory and worth of God is displayed when a church, when we show by our actions and commitments that He is worth more than anything else in the world – like our sons and daughters and husbands and wives. To the elect scattered over the then known world, Peter writes:
…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light…”
That’s what the church is for. The church is for shouting the greatness of God! It’s for the proclamations of his perfections! Do you know why evangelism exists? The church does not exist for evangelism! That doesn’t let us off the hook. But evangelism exists because worship doesn’t! Worship is the goal. Worship is why God sent his son into the world to save a people. God loved the world not because of the world, but that the world would love Him! God saved a people for God, in other words. And that people is the church, and only the church, a gospel people.
Two Gospel Words
Three gospel men, one gospel people, and finally, two gospel words: “Grace to you and peace.” What is grace? And how does one speak of it to those who countless times have heard of it, sung about it, and spoken of it? Let me make the attempt.
Grace is like a cool rain on a hot day that washes all my sins away. Grace is me, in my nakedness, in all my shame, covered by the finest royal robes. Grace is my head, bowed to the ground in the presence of the king, fearing for my life, only to be crowned with the gems of heaven. Grace is when, in the place of slamming iron doors echoing through the halls, where despair holds life in its cruel claws, and death is waiting in the dark across the prison yard, a man with a blinding ray of hope in his eyes, and the sound of repentance in his voice, tells of the One who rescued him from hell, saying: “I’m free. I have been forgiven. God’s love has taken off my chains and given me these wings…” (SC Chapman). Grace, pure grace is the cross of Christ, from which flows “free and liberating grace . . . a grace revealed completely apart from the Law, works, or human effort” (John Dunn). Grace, saving grace, is not a paycheck from God. It’s not a dividend for our attempts to live for Divine approval. We can never earn God’s approval by Law, by work, by self-effort, or anything else. It’s so true; the real offence of the cross is not so much the cross itself, but that it preaches “Done! You’re free! You’re forgiven! You need not do anything! I’ve done it for you! You need not do a thing to justify yourself in the sight of God. Spurgeon:
I know not a word which can express the surprise and wonder our souls ought to feel at God’s goodness to us. Our hearts playing the harlot; our lives far from perfect; our faith almost blown out; our unbelief often prevailing; our pride lifting up its accursed head; our patience a poor sickly plant, almost nipped by one night’s frost; our courage little better than cowardice; our love lukewarmness; our ardour but as ice—oh, my dear brethren, if we will but think any one of us what a mass of sin we are, if we will but reflect that we are after all, as one of the fathers writes, “walking dunghills,” we should indeed be surprised that the sun of divine grace should continue so perpetually to shine upon us, and that the abundance of heaven’s mercy should be revealed in us.”
Grace is the root of the gospel, as someone said. It draws us, secures us, justifies us, and keeps us. And if grace is the root, peace is the fruit, peace with God, and thus a quiet, restful conscience. How do we find rest from a guilty conscience? Rivet the eyes of your soul on the cross. Fix your eyes on Christ, not yourself. By faith, Christ is our righteousness. By faith, Christ is our perfection. By faith, Christ is our justification. And by faith, He is our assurance and peace.
Two gospel words from three gospel men to one gospel church- Question: Is this it? Is this what Paul means to convey in this first verse, that when he says, “Grace and peace to you” he speaks of that grace and peace from God? Or does he have something else in mind? After all, Paul addresses a church here, those already recipients of saving grace, those already with a great amount of peace. I think the answer is obvious to us when we read it as a unit. Just listen to it: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church…Grace and peace to you.” This was not so much from God per se, as it was a greeting from Paul and his companions to the church. GRACE, good will, good favor and peace from us to you, Thessalonica. Grace from us to you! We mean you no harm. We wish not to unsettle you. We actually wish you every grace in Christ. I take this is, in other words, to be a Christian greeting. It’s a Christian greeting, but one that is full of meaning, dripping with the grace extended to us in the cross. Do you understand? In and by the cross, grace, overwhelming undeserved favor. was extended to us. And here, in these gospel words, in this gospel greeting, that grace is extended from believers to believers. This is not sin toleration. Don’t confuse grace with tolerating sin. Simple, naked tolerance is not grace. That kind of grace gets you into hell. Besides, the cross itself displayed God’s judgment against sin. But at the same time always be mindful of this one thing: We’re all made from the same dust. And as gospel people, recipients of grace, we of all people need to greet one another with gospel words. And so I just say to you, before we eat and drink, “Grace to you and peace.”
Todd Braye is solo pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Blackie, Alberta (some 30 miles south of Calgary). After graduating from Canadian Theological Seminary in 1997 (M.Div.) he served a small Baptist church in rural Ontario for six years. Happy to be back home in Alberta, entering his 12th year of pastoral ministry, Todd’s eyes were opened to gospel freedom when preaching through Galatians (a task yet unfinished). Check out his blog @ “GraceNotes“.