The Lord's Day Morning
May 13, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Gospel with Power”
1 Thessalonians 1:4-6
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 1. We’re going to be looking at verses 4 to 6 together this morning as we continue our way through this wonderful letter of the apostle Paul – the first letter that he wrote; a letter that he wrote to a congregation that he had planted in the course of just a matter of weeks. And last week, even as we were looking at the introduction, we were commenting on one of the themes of this little letter is what a high view of the Word of God this congregation has. Paul's going to congratulate them for that in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 13. He's going to say, “When we came preaching the Word of God to you, we thank God that you received it for what it is. You didn't just accept it as the words of men; you understood that we were preaching the Word of God to you. This wasn't a message we made up. It was a message that God put in our mouths to give to you and you accepted it for what it is.”
And even there, I want to pause on this Mother's Day to say something about that. Last month in Louisville, Kentucky, eight thousand or so pastors and church leaders gathered at a conference and during that conference one of the panel sessions was a panel on Biblical inerrancy. And Dr. Al Mohler led that session and John Piper, the pastor of BethlehemBaptistChurch in Minneapolis, St. Paul, was one of the people on the panel. Now you may know Dr. Piper is a very famous preacher but he's also a New Testament scholar. He's studied New Testament at the University of Tubingen in Europe, he taught Biblical Studies at college and has taught at the graduate level as well; he's a powerful scholar. And at this panel, Dr. Mohler began by saying, “I want to ask each member on the panel why it is that you believe in Biblical inerrancy.” And he said, “I want to start with you, Dr. Piper.” And so we were, I don't know what we were expecting him to say, but when he got to Dr. Piper he said, “Dr. Piper, why do you believe in Biblical inerrancy?” And he said, “Because my mama told me to.”
Now that crowd of eight thousand pastors and church leaders did just what you did when he said that; they laughed a little bit. And he said, “No, I'm totally serious.” He said, “First of all, that's a Biblical argument.” You know in 2 Timothy chapter 1 Paul says to Timothy, “You know from whom you have learned the faith, from your grandmother and mother.” Paul is pointing Timothy back to his grandmother and to his mother and to the spiritual legacy that had been bequeathed to Timothy from them. On his grandmother and mother's knees he had learned the truth of Scripture. He had learned about the Gospel of salvation. And Paul is saying, “Timothy, that is something to be profoundly thankful for.” And on this day we want to rise up and call blessed the mothers in Israel in this congregation that have given us that kind of spiritual legacy.
Throughout those three days at that pastor's conference last month, over and over men who are now renowned for their preaching of the Gospel and their teaching of the Word of God here and around the world gave testimony to how their mother's spiritual influence had been formative in their conviction of these Gospel things. And I just want to say to you, mothers in Israel here at First Presbyterian Church, you are the most influential people in the world and there is no telling how many millions of people have heard the Gospel because of the mothers that ministered to those men who were leading in that conference last month.
I can give testimony to that myself. When I was at the University of Edinburgh starting out as a doctoral student, I was reading the works of a man who did not believe in the Scriptures and was very, very critical of Christianity. It was part of a project that I had to do while I was there and I've got to tell you, it was about the six months of like drinking poison. And it was a soul-killing time. But in God's kindness to me while I was reading that material I was reading the biography of J. Gresham Machen. Now J. Gresham Machen was one of the great Presbyterian stalwarts of the early 20th century. He was a professor at Princeton; he later founded Westminster Theological Seminary. He was from southern Presbyterian roots. His family was out of First Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, though he had grown up in Baltimore and went to Johns HopkinsUniversity.
Well Machen went to Europe as well to study and he went into the circles of German theological liberalism in the early 1900's and even was taught by the famous German liberal, Herrmann. And he went through a wrestling with the Word of God and during that time he was in correspondence with his godly mother who continued to exhort him to hold fast to the view of the Scriptures that he had been taught since he was a little boy. And she was his major theological conversation partner, not only then but really throughout all her life. When he wrote his famous defense of the doctrine of the virgin birth, his book, The Virgin Birth of Christ, he dedicated it to his mother. And I had that same experience because my mother was my conversation partner during those times and I would have feared for my life had I reverted from the sound doctrine of the Word of God that she had taught me from the time that I was a child. So I want to pause and I want us to thank God for godly mothers and grandmothers who are mothers in Israel who have taught us to respect the Word of God and to hear the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul's going to congratulate the Thessalonians for that kind of attitude to the Word of God, he's going to point Timothy to the remembrance of where he heard the Word of God from first, and we ought to thank God as well.
Now as we look at this passage today and as we read verses 4 to 6, I want you to be on the lookout for three things. In verse 4 I want you to see how Paul shows us that the doctrine of election is vital to helping us understand the love of God. Now that's a sentence that maybe you have never thought of all those parts going together. The doctrine of election is vital for us understanding and experiencing the love of God. You’ll see that in verse 4. In verse 5, Paul draws attention to how the Gospel is powerful. It's not just words, it comes with power. And he explains how in verse 5. And then in verse 6 he talks about the evidences of God's grace in you, what the Holy Spirit does in you as you receive the Gospel. Now why is Paul saying this? He's saying this, first of all, to thank God. This whole section is a portion of the letter in which he's thanking God for the Thessalonians but he's thanking God for these things also as an encouragement to them and the reality of their faith and to prepare them for an exhortation that he's about to give them. So let's pray before we read God's Word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. We need every word of it because all Scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for reproof and correction and training in righteousness that the man and women of God might be equipped for every good work. So speak, Lord, Your servants listen. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it:
“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. 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…”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Paul loves this congregation and he wants to encourage them and challenge them. In this book he puts those two things together — encouragement and exhortation. He encourages them and then challenges them. And before he exhorts them, before he challenges them, before he calls them to faithfulness, before he calls them to live light in light of Jesus’ return, he pauses to thank God for things that he has seen God doing in the lives of the Thessalonians. And he does this precisely to prepare them for the exhortation that he is going to give them. The way he is preparing the Thessalonians to hear and to respond affirmatively to the challenges, to the exhortations, is to point them to the very obvious and objective encouragements that God has done through the ministry of the Word in their midst.
THE DOCTRINE OF ELECTION HELPS US UNDERSTAND THE LOVE OF GOD
And in this passage I want to draw your attention to three of them. The first thing that he says, as he addresses them, is “Brothers loved by God, we know that He has chosen you.” Paul draws their attention to the truth that God has chosen them, to the fact that God has chosen them. He roots their understanding of their relationship to God in what we call the doctrine of election. Now I understand that that is a doctrine that a lot of people struggle with, a lot of people reject, a lot of people are confused by — even in a Presbyterian church, even in a conservative Presbyterian church where we like The Westminster Confession of Faith. There are people who are really confused by and struggle with the doctrine of election, but understand this, in verse 4, Paul is making it clear that our experience of the love of God is rooted in an understanding that His love is an electing love. One of the ways that the Bible tells us our experience of God's love for us is rooted and grounded is in understanding election. It's very simple. Paul is saying here to the Thessalonians the reason they love God is because God set His love on them from before the foundation of the world.
It's very similar to John. Remember what John says? “We love because He first loved us.” That is, our love for God, our love for one another, flows from — what? His prior love. He loved us first, therefore we love Him. It is not that God loves us because we first loved Him; it is that we love because He first loved us. And He set His love on us before we existed, before the foundation of this world. God's love is from eternity and we noted last week how often Paul pulls together two ideas — God's love and God's choosing — the doctrine of the love of God and the doctrine of election. He does it in Ephesians 1 verses 4 and 5, doesn't it? “In love, He predestined us to the adoption as sons.” There's Paul saying God's choosing, predestining love happened before the foundation of the world and it was designed to bring us into His family. So our being a part of His family is the result of His predestining love. He links those ideas together constantly.
Many Christians that I meet, many wonderful Christians that I meet, godly Christians, for a whole variety of reasons struggle with believing the doctrine of God's love. It may be it may be that there is some sin in the past or in the present which has undermined your confidence and your assurance of His love. You just think, “There is no way that God could love me because of what I did. Even though I trust Him, even though I believe the Gospel, because of what I've done there's just no way He could love me.” It may be that human relationships have deeply impacted your ability to feel and to receive love, to know that you are loved. And one of the divine truths of Scripture is how much time God gives attention to this issue of His people knowing how much He loves them. And here Paul is, before he even gets out of the block in his exhortation to the Thessalonians, he's pausing to say, “I just want you to know, brothers, that you are loved by God and you are loved by God in a way that began before you existed. Before the foundation of this world you were chosen by God.” And so there's the first thing that Paul points them to. It's a thanksgiving to God and it's an encouragement to them that God's electing love had been set on them from before the foundation of the world and that's meant to be a comfort, an encouragement. It's meant to strengthen them.
THE GOSPEL COMES IN THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
And then Paul says something else in verse 5. Look at what he says in those words. “Our Gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Now the Gospel has to come in words you understand. Sometimes we hear people talk about sharing the Gospel wordlessly. It can't be done because the Gospel is an announcement about something that God has done. It's not about something that we do. Sometimes you may hear Christian leaders say things like, “Be the Gospel.” You can't be the Gospel; Jesus is the Gospel. The work of Christ on the cross is the Gospel. God is the Gospel. You’re not the Gospel. And so the only way that that Gospel can be conveyed is with words because we're having to tell about what God has done. The Gospel is not something we do; it's something that God did.
Now it is of course true that we want to practice what we preach. It is of course true that we want to demonstrate the results and the effects of the Gospel in our lives so that people understand that we're not hypocrites, that we're not saying one thing and living another way. Or we want to show them and prepare them to hear the Word of God by the way that we love them. Those are all good things but you can't share the Gospel wordlessly. But here's Paul emphasis in this passage. He said, “When the Gospel came to you, Thessalonians, I want to thank God” – that's what he's doing here, he's thanking God — “I want to thank you that it didn't just come in words; it came with power and the Holy Spirit and with your full conviction or assurance of its truth.” In other words, Paul is saying, “I thank God, Thessalonians, that when the Word of God came it came with converting, saving power. You were saved out of darkness and into God's marvelous light.”
Paul is pointing to the fact that the Word of God is powerful and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and it's not unlike what he will later write in the first chapter of the book of Romans. Remember what he says there? “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation” – the announcement that God, in His love, has given His only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die in the place of sinners, enemies. While we were yet in our sin and ungodliness, in order that we might be forgiven, in order that the dominion of sin might be broken in our lives, in order that we might be accepted back into His family and dwell with Him forever, that announcement came with power to the Thessalonians so that Thessalonians who were struggling with guilt realized that in the Gospel the struggle of their guilt was answered. And Thessalonians that were struggling with the fear of death realized that in the Gospel their fear of death was answered because, “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”
And those Thessalonians who were struggling with meaning found an answer in the Gospel. They understood that this world makes sense, that from creation to fall to redemption to consummation God is working His purpose out and He's building a people for Himself — men and women and boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation He's bringing into His body, into His family. And there's a purpose, there's a meaning in this life. This life makes sense. And when they heard the Gospel preached, the Holy Spirit opened their eyes and the Gospel came with power. And those Thessalonians that were struggling with a sense of the love of God heard in the Gospel the truth that “God demonstrates His love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” And the Gospel came with power. It changed lives. People believed it and they were transformed. In fact, they had full conviction. That's not conviction of sin, that's full assurance of the truth and authority and power of God's Word. They were fully on board with what Paul was preaching.
And then there's this interesting phrase, “and in the Holy Spirit.” “The Gospel came to you in the Holy Spirit.” Let's pause to think about that for just a second because it's so glorious and important. Turn back with me in your Bibles to Luke. I want to take you to Luke, Acts 1, Acts 2, and Galatians 3, just real quick. Turn to Luke 24:49. It's the very last chapter of the gospel of Luke. We just finished three years in Luke and I know some of you are thinking, “Oh no, not back there again, please!” But no, it's just one sentence I want you to see. In Luke 24 verse 49, right before Jesus ascends into heaven, He says this to His disciples: “I am sending the promise of My Father upon you.” Now just hold that thought — “the promise of My Father.” If you’re like me, the first question you’re asking is, “What is that? What is the promise of your Father?”
Okay, turn forward with me to the sequel, Acts chapter 1, and look at verse 8. Now this is the same scene, understand. Luke is picking right up where he left off in the Gospel and telling you about the conversation that Jesus had with His disciples before they ascend and He says in Acts chapter 1 verse 8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” So just hold those two thoughts together. “I am going to send the promise of My Father…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”
Now turn forward one page to Acts chapter 2. After Peter has preached at Pentecost and the people of God have cried out, or the people that are gathered there, the “men of Israel” he calls them in Acts 2, they cry out, “Okay Peter, we believe everything you say! We are guilty of our sin but we don't know what to do. What should we do?” What does Peter say? Look at verse 38. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, for the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are afar off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.’” Did you hear that phrase? “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for the promise is for you.” “I will send the promise of My Father” — Luke 24:49. “You will receive the Holy Spirit” — Acts 1:8. Acts 2:38 — “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for the promise is for you.” What promise? “The promise of My Father that I will send the Holy Spirit.”
Now just quickly, notice how, throughout the book of Acts, wherever the Gospel goes, what does Luke tell us? The Holy Spirit comes. Where the Gospel goes and it is accepted, the Holy Spirit comes. He comes to convert and He comes to sanctify and He manifests Himself. Over and over that happens throughout the book of Acts. It's Luke's way of showing you that Jesus’ words are being fulfilled over and over and over again. “I will send the promise of My Father.” What is that promise? It is the Holy Spirit.
Now one more component. It's just beautiful to see. Turn with me to Galatians 3:13. In Galatians 3:13 Paul says this — “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Now three things are all together in verse 14 — the promise, the Spirit, and God's blessing to Abraham. Ah-ha! “The promise of My Father is the sending of the Holy Spirit.” And what is the sending of the Holy Spirit? It is the fulfillment of God's blessing to Abraham in the covenant of grace all the way back in Genesis 12 and 15 and 17! And Luke is telling us that when the Gospel comes and the Holy Spirit changes our hearts and we receive it, we become recipients — all of us, Jews and Gentiles — of what? The blessing that God promised to give to Abraham thousands of years ago. And Paul's saying to the Thessalonians, “I saw that happen when I preached the Word of God. I saw it happen. The Holy Spirit opened your eyes to see that the Gospel was true. You believed and you received the promise that God had made to Abraham thousands of years ago — the promised Holy Spirit.
JOY IN AFFLICTION: AN EVIDENCE OF GRACE
And how was that manifested? Well, that's our third point. Look at verse 6. 1 Thessalonians chapter 1 verse 6 — “You became imitators of us and of the Lord.” In other words, Paul said, “You started to live our lives like we live — you believe the things we believe; you live the way we live; you have the same priorities we have.” But isn't it interesting, the second half of verse 6, the big thing that he wants to draw attention to is this — “You received the Word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, Paul is saying, “Here's the thing I saw the Holy Spirit most dramatically do in you – in much affliction, you had joy. In much outward tribulation and opposition and even persecution, there was joy in the Holy Spirit in you and it said to me, it was like a neon sign flashing, ‘The Holy Spirit has changed these people!’ because even though they’re experiencing affliction, there is joy!” Wouldn't that be a great motto for life? Look at verse 6. “In much affliction — joy!”
Isn't it interesting, at the very outset of the Christian ministry, Paul does not say, “If you become a Christian no more affliction.” You know there are some people that teach that — “If you just become a Christian, no more affliction, and if you have affliction it's because you don't have enough faith.” At the very outset, Paul says, “No, when the Holy Spirit comes with power it does not mean no affliction. What it means is — affliction with joy!” Martin Luther once said, “Christ was crowned with thorns. Were you expecting roses?” Christ was crowned with thorns. Were you expecting roses? You see, Paul's saying, “We apostles, we followed Jesus Christ in that we have our own afflictions.” Paul will use that provocative language elsewhere — “We were filling up that which was lacking in Christ's afflictions” and so are you. Afflictions ought to be the last thing that surprises us. Everybody in this life has afflictions; not everybody has joy. And this is a specific kind of joy. Notice what he calls it — “the joy of the Holy Spirit.” This is the kind of joy that only the Holy Spirit can give you. And Paul says, “This made it so evident to me that you had really been converted, that God had really come in power with the Gospel, because in your afflictions you continued to display an evident, manifest joy that could only have come from the Holy Ghost.”
Just a few days ago, the brother of one of our ruling elders was diagnosed with an aggressive, inoperable cancer. He's a young man and he's only going to be with us for weeks. And I called up our elder just to check on him and fifteen minutes after he picked up the phone, I had just received from him fifteen minutes of more encouragement than I can ever remember. And I just said to him, “Friend, when I get that diagnosis one day, I want you to remember every word you just said to me because I'm calling you up.” And what he had done is, in the midst of losing a brother he loves, he had articulated for me joy in the Holy Spirit. And that's what Paul is saying. He looked into the hearts and lives of the Thessalonians – in the midst of all their afflictions, there was an inextinguishable joy that only the Holy Spirit could have put there. I know there are a lot of afflictions here today of all manner of variety, but the way that we testify to the power of the Gospel is our joy in those afflictions – not because of those afflictions — we're not masochists, but joy because of the Holy Spirit even in those afflictions. Paul said, “That's one of the reasons Thessalonians that I can say unshakably that you are chosen of God, because even in your afflictions you have joy, inexpressible and full of glory and it comes from the Holy Spirit.”
All of these things Paul is giving thanks to God for, all of these things he is giving encouragement with in order that he could exhort the Thessalonians and you and me to live life in light of Jesus’ return. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You, thank You. By Your Spirit, give us this joy. It's a Gospel joy and we can only have it if we trust in Jesus Christ. It's a Holy Spirit joy. It's applied by the work of the Spirit in us, so we ask, Lord, even if our world has been turned inside out and upside down, give us this joy, in Jesus' name. Amen.
Well let's sing and let's take our bulletins in hand and sing of the power of the cross.
Our God supplies all our needs. Receive His blessing. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all both now and forevermore.