The Lord's Day Morning
May 6, 2012
“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Reason to be Thankful”
1 Thessalonians 1:1-4
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 the first four verses together today as we begin a journey in this wonderful letter.
Do you remember what you were doing twenty years ago? I can remember some of the things I was doing twenty years ago. I was in my first year of marriage twenty years ago. I was working at the seminary. I was calling a guy in Belfast, Northern Ireland about once a month telling him that he really needed to move to Jackson and teach at RTS. His name was Derek Thomas; you may have heard of him. I can remember a lot of things I was doing twenty years ago. This letter was written about twenty years after Jesus died and rose again. It's one of the earliest letters of the New Testament. You are very close to the events of the life and ministry and crucifixion and death and burial and resurrection and ascension of Christ when you’re reading this letter. This is Paul's first letter. Only James vies with it to be among the earliest letters of the New Testament. You are very close to ground zero of early Christianity when you’re reading the letter of 1 Thessalonians.
And isn't it interesting, it's filled with references to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It makes perfect sense. Every chapter in this letter refers to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. That should not surprise us. You remember, as far as Paul is concerned, he's all in on the resurrection. You know there are some people who think that Christianity would be better off if we didn't believe in the Second Coming and if we didn't believe in the resurrection. As far as the apostle Paul's concerned, that's ridiculous. It's all about the resurrection and the Second Coming. Without those things, he says in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, “We are, of all people, most miserable.” And of course here he is in this first letter that he writes telling them how important it is for them to hope in the resurrection. It makes perfect sense in light of what Paul will later write to the Corinthians.
This letter is a letter filled with great doctrinal themes. The letter is fundamentally about what we call sanctification — how you grow in godliness, how you grow in grace, how you become more like Jesus Christ. Paul fills this letter with exhortations to us to grow in holiness; but not just exhortations to be holy, he actually, in this letter, tells you how you can get there. Paul not only gives us exhortations here about what to do but he helps us with how to get there.
And this letter is filled with teaching about the communion of the saints. It makes it clear that we can't live the Christian life without one another. We need one another. We need the fellowship of the saints. We need shared lives. We need communion with our brothers and sisters if we're going to live this life.
And this letter has a wonderfully high view of Scripture. Think of it. Twenty years after Christ, who came up with a high view of Scripture? Did fundamentalists come up with it in the 20th century? Did Presbyterians invent it at Princeton in the 19th century? This is twenty years after Jesus died and was raised again from the dead and in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 13 Paul says, “Thessalonians, I want to thank you, that when we came to you with the Word of God you did not receive it as the words of men but for what it really is — the very Word of God.” Twenty years after Jesus was resurrected. And what do you find in Paul? What do you find in 1 Thessalonians? A high view of Scripture. It is the very Word of God.
Let's dive into this letter together and study it, and before we do, let's pray and ask for God's help.
Lord, this is Your Word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it, that You would speak to us by it, that You would help us on the way to godliness with it, that You would change us, convert us, comfort us, challenge us, grow us, all by Your Word. We pray this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God beginning in 1 Thessalonians chapter 1 verse 1:
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you…”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone, an encounter with someone, in which they said, “You know, Christianity is all about escape. It's all about pie in the sky, by and by. You Christians think that what's here doesn't really matter. It's all about the then and there; it's all about heaven. You’re so heavenly minded you’re not earthly good”? Have you ever encountered that in conversation? Or maybe you've read it. I've read it more recently than I used to hear it, twenty or thirty years ago. There's a standing challenge, there's a standing charge against Christianity that because we believe in the new heavens and the new earth, because we believe in the life to come, that we're really of no earthly good, and that until we jettison our escapism, our thinking about the future, the promises of heaven, the return of Christ, we're really not going to be able to live this life, invest ourselves in this world, care for the needy and for the poor, serve in such a way as to truly help our fellow man until we give up our escapism, until we give up our pie in the sky by and by, we're never ever really going to be any earthly good.
That charge misses the entire point of all of the teaching in the New Testament and the Old Testament about the end. All of that teaching explicitly in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, is designed not to make us not care about this life, but in fact that teaching is designed to enable us to live this life well. The New Testament constantly says that believers are to live life in light of Jesus’ return. In every chapter of 1 Thessalonians Paul will bring to bear the truth of the return of Jesus Christ and show how it relates to our daily lives. His point is, you cannot live this life well if you’re not living it in light of the resurrection, if you’re not living it in light of the Second Coming of Christ. That truth does not rob us of the capacity to care now; it empowers us to live this life well, to serve well, to care now. And that is one of the great themes of this book as Paul shows that what we believe about the end, what we hope for ultimately, actually fuels us to live day by day right here and now. And we're going to study that together.
But today I want you to see three things. In verse 1 I want you to see a greeting. In verses 2 and 3 I want you to see a prayer. And in verse 4 I want you to see a truth. A greeting, a prayer, and a truth – verse 1, verses 2 and 3, and verse 4. Paul, in this greeting, is going to manage to explain in a brief set of words and phrases to the Thessalonians who they really are. In other words, in that greeting, he is going to give them a life-defining salutation. He's going to greet them in such a way as to define who they are. Then in verses 2 and 3 in his prayer, he is going to thank God for what God has made them. In other words, he's going to thank God for a grace-transformed life. And then in the truth in verse 4 he's going to explain how they got here, who they are, what they are now like by God's grace, and how did they get there. How in the world did you get from being polytheistic pagans to being living, breathing believers in the one true God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How’d you get there? And he's going to point them to a world proceeding love. That's what I want to look with you at today, so let's begin.
A LIFE-DEFINING GREETING
In verse 1, notice what he says. After greeting them in his own name and in the name of his partners, he says, “To the church of the Thessalonians.” Now that's not too surprising. It's the gathering of believers in the town of Thessalonica and so he calls them “the church of the Thessalonians,” but then he says something really interesting and really unique — “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a life-defining greeting that tells them who they are. Do you pay much attention to greetings in letters that you get? I normally don't, but my guess is that some of you can remember greetings that you paid really close attention to. Can you remember when you were writing love letters and oftentimes that greeting told you where you stood? When a letter starts off with, “Love of my life,” you have my full attention! It defines who you are and Paul begins this greeting by not only saying, “You’re in Thessalonica, You’re in Jackson,” but “You are in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. You are untied to God by the Spirit in Jesus Christ. You are in Him. You’re under His protection. You’re close to His heart. You’re underneath His gaze. You’re the apple of His eye. You’re in Him. You’re connected to Him. You’re with Him. You’re His.”
One of our colleagues at the seminary who recently retired, Ralph Davis, used to sign his notes, “In Christ in Jackson.” That was how he conceived of himself. “That's who I am. I'm in Christ in Jackson. Jackson is where the Lord has me and I'm in Christ.” That's kind of what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians here. “You’re in Thessalonica. Here's the big picture. Fundamentally, fundamentally what's unique about you is that you are in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ. That's what's unique about you, not what street you grew up on, not who your daddy was, not what groups you were a part of in high school and college, it's that you are in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ.” We’re in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and in Jackson.
And then Paul gives a blessing. “Grace to you and peace” — glorious, big words. Grace, not just unmerited favor, not just favor from God — special favor from God, saving favor from God that we did not earn or deserve, but in fact, favor that we demerited. We positively did not deserve that merit, that favor to be shown to us. We rebelled against God. We did not believe in His Word. In our pride we raised up against Him and worshiped idols. We went after our own wills and ways and yet in His love and mercy and grace He saved us. And Paul's just saying to the church of the Thessalonians, “That grace defines you. It defines who you are. You are fundamentally recipients of grace and of peace, the peace that comes from that grace, not just a cessation of hostility, but total wellbeing. God's grace has its design of your experience of total wellbeing. That's who you are, Thessalonians.”
Isn't it amazing, twenty years before Paul got there and Paul was only there for what, three weeks? Three weeks it took him to plant this church. Twenty years beforehand these people were pagan polytheists and now they’re worshiping the one, true God. They've embraced the Gospel! And Paul says, “Let me tell you who you are. You’re not a bunch of Greeks from Thessalonica who are pagan polytheists. You are in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ and you are under His grace and He has as His purpose your peace. That is who you are.” Does that hit you every once in a while? I mean, this is us! Most of us here are Gentiles just like those Thessalonians, and here the Jewish apostle Paul — and he was reading his Bible twenty years before! They didn't know what a Bible was twenty years before! And here he is saying, “You and I, we are fellow worshipers of the living God. That's who you are.” In other words, this greeting is life defining. It shows who they really are.
A PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING TO GOD
And then I want you to see the prayer that he prays in verses 2 and 3 because the prayer is a thanksgiving to God. It is an expression of gratitude to God for the grace transformed lives of the Thessalonians. He's not only telling them who they are, he's thanking God for what God has made them to be like. Look at what he says. “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers.” What does he pray? He tells you in verse 3. “When we're mentioning you in our prayers, we are remembering before our God and Father” – and don't you love the way he says, “our God and Father”? You know, this Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, “We’re ‘us.’ We belong to one another. We’re on the same team. It's you and me.” This Jewish ex-Pharisee, ex-persecutor of Jewish Christians, now the apostle to the Gentiles and, “It's you and me – Thessalonian, Greek, Christians! It's us. It's our God. It's our Father. I remember you before our Father and what do I remember? I remember your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, Paul says, “I see the evidence of God's grace in your life and I see it in three ways. Because of your faith, because you believe the Gospel, because you believe the Word of God, because you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you work!”
Now by the way, right there, already there, already there, you have the undermining truth to respond to the serious challenge of the world that Christianity makes you no earthly good. What did their faith result in? Work! It moved them to care — actually all the things that were in the anthem that were just sung to us moves us to care for one another, for those in need, moves us to serve one another in times of trial and difficulty, moves us to share the Gospel. Paul's going to emphasize that in verses 6 to 10. His mind is going to be blown about how these Thessalonians, among whom he was for three weeks, are now out sharing the Gospel despite the fact that that sharing of the Gospel is getting for them persecution and trials. And he says, “That's what your faith did. The faith that God planted in you led you to work.”
And, “labor of love.” There's a beautiful phrase that comes right out of the King James. It's repeated here in the ESV. What does that mean? The hard work that results from the love of God that is implanted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Love moves us to that kind of hard work obedience, toil for the Savior.
And “your hope.” These folks hoped in Jesus Christ. They hoped in His return. They hoped in the resurrection. It gave them endurance and Paul is saying, “I see those qualities in you. I've heard the reports of your faith and your love and your hope. Your lives have been changed by the Gospel. Your lives have been changed by Christ. Your lives have been changed by the God that I came and preached to you. I see it; it's reality. Think of what your life leads me to give thanks to God for you!” Now every minister wants to see God's grace at work in the hearts of people. And here's the apostle Paul saying, “You know, I've had some tough congregations, but I see, I see the work of God's grace abundantly evident in you in your faith and love and hope and it gives me joy and so I thank God.” Now later in this book he's going to explain to us how that faith and love and hope become for us the weapons that we can use to fight the Christian life. We’ll get there when we get to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. But for right now he just wants to say, “Thessalonian Christians, I see your faith and your love and your hope and it just makes we want to thank God because that's Him at work in you!”
THE TRUTH OF GOD’S ELECTING LOVE
And then he says one more thing. He says, “But I want you to understand, I want you to understand how you got here. How did you go from being pagan polytheists who hadn't even read a Hebrew Bible to being worshipers of the one, true, and living God through the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ who believe the Scriptures, every one of them, every word of them, as the very Word of God? How did that happen? How did you go from being idolaters to being people whose lives were transformed by grace and evidencing faith and love and hope? How did that happen?” And he explains in verse 4. “For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you…” Did you hear that? Paul knows that the Thessalonians are elect! He knows that they are chosen by God! How does he know that? Through some apostolic word of knowledge? No, because he sees their faith and love and hope and because he sees their faith and love and hope he knows that they are the elect.
You know, missionaries share the Gospel with thousands upon thousands of people and many, maybe most, do not respond in trust in Jesus Christ. But when some do and when those missionaries see the evidences of God's grace in faith and love and hope, those missionaries can come back to you and me and say, “I have met some of God's elect. I've met them! I know them! They came to faith in Christ and I know them. I know people that God has set His love on from before the foundation of the world.” You understand the background to this language of ‘elect’ or ‘chosen.’ It's the language first and foremost which was used of Israel in the Old Testament. Out of all of the nations God chose Israel to be His own people, His peculiar people, His unique people, the people who were to bear witness to His name. But of course in the Old Testament there are some individuals that are spoken of as being chosen by God. Aaron's priesthood is spoken of as being specially chosen by God. God chose Aaron to be His priest. No one can be a priest in the Old Testament who is not of Aaron's line because God chose Aaron. That's why Saul ended up being judged when he dared to take the priesthood to himself. God had given that to Aaron and his line; he was the chosen. And of course the king of Israel, and especially David and his descendants were the chosen king, the chosen monarch for God's people. God had specially set His love on David and said, “David, your descendant will never lack – you will never lack a man to sit on this throne.”
And in the New Testament all of that glorious language about God choosing Israel, God choosing David, is applied to believers in our Lord Jesus Christ whether they are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. You are the chosen of God. What it means is trillions of years ago before there was an earth, before there was this solar system, before there was this expanse of space 13.8 billion light-years across, before there was time, God set His love on you. He chose you. Paul is saying, “Thessalonians, I just want you to take that in. You are loved of God. He chose you.” It's just like Ephesians, isn't it? “In love,” Ephesians 1:4, last two words, “In love He predestined us to the adoption as sons.” “Brothers loved by God, He has chosen you.” It's the same thing – Ephesians 1:4 and 5, go look it up.
Why? Why does he say this? Because he wants them to understand that their salvation began with the love of God. It didn't begin with them being better than other people. It didn't begin with them being more deserving than other people. It began with the love of God. He wants them to know that. He wants them to be awash in that reality. Does that every strike you? I love it when we sing Isaac Watts’ hymn, “How Sweet and Awesome is the Place” and I love it when we get to the stanza where it says, “With all our hearts and all our songs tuned to admire the feast, each of us cries with thankful voice, ‘Lord, why was I a guest?’”
You know the picture. The picture is from Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet, the wedding feast, and the invited guests don't come and so he goes out and he gathers folks from the highways and the byways to come in and sit down at the marriage feast of the Lamb. That's what the song is based on. And then he goes on to say, “Lord, why was I a guest? Why was I made to hear Your voice and enter while there's room, when thousands make a wretched choice and rather starve than come?” And you remember his answer? His answer is, “It was that same love that spread the feast” — remember Romans 5:8? “God demonstrates His love in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” “It was that same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in, else we would have still refused to taste and perished in our sin.” And Paul wants the Thessalonians to know, “Let me tell you why you’re not pagan polytheists anymore, because trillions of years ago God set His love on you. He has been pursuing you before time, before the world, before you were.” He is telling them about a world-preceding love, “because,” he says, “it is that love,” — and he’ll explain this in Ephesians 3 — “it's that love that matures us.”
You know, I know a lot of godly Christians that struggle to really believe that God loves them in that way. And if you’re one of those, before Paul even gets out of his greeting and his opening prayer he wants you to go back and realize how much the Father loves you because that world-preceding love is life defining. Oh, I can't wait to study this book with you because we need it. We need its teaching for the living of this day. Let's pray.
Our heavenly Father, as we move today and week by week under Your guidance and watch care through the pages of this letter, grant by Your Spirit that its truth would be brought home to our hearts in such a way that we are transformed now and forevermore. We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Receive now God's blessing. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Amen.