The folks in the church at Thessalonica were deeply loved by the Apostle Paul. Now that part’s not so unusual. Paul loved all of the churches with which he was associated. But in addition to love, he also had deep affection for them. Paul is very excited about the work that this congregation is accomplishing, and he is encouraged by their determination and resolve to keep at the work of the ministry to which they’ve been called, even, as it turns out, in the face of the adverse circumstances of persecution and rejection.
And for the folks at Thessalonica, rejection was a real issue. For the most part, the followers of Jesus in that city were Gentiles. People like you and me. They did not have the advantage of knowing something about the one true God before they responded to the preaching of the gospel. The folks at Thessalonica worshiped idols. The trouble with the human species is that our hearts are so active that we will worship anything, and we will invest power and authority into anything, even if it is something so simple as an amputated rabbit’s foot.
It is not easy being an idol worshiper; so many gods to keep track of, so many gods to keep happy. And the trouble with all of these gods, represented by idols, is that they are notoriously short tempered, and always ready to create havoc and disaster in a person’s life. Idol worshipers are the most superstitious people on the planet. Superstitious people do not normally respond to the gospel, because they would have to abandon their idols, and turn over all of their superstitions to God, and quite frankly, that was too risky for some people.
But there was a miracle at Thessalonica. People did respond to the message of the gospel, and they did it with joy and with enthusiasm, and that is very unusual. Even today, many people associate loss and deprivation with faith, and joy and enthusiasm is often in very short supply, even among the committed followers of Jesus. And so there was this wonderful miracle, and the Apostle Paul reminds his readers that they responded to the gospel through a combination of the power of preaching and the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul says that he came to Thessalonica preaching with power and with full conviction. Now on the one hand, that sounds really cool. Power and full conviction in preaching is essential.
But on the other hand, what Paul says could be a little bit suspect. By his own admission, Paul wasn’t a very good preacher. He was often accused by his listeners of being a tad on the dull side, especially when he was compared to some other, more popular preachers. And it may very well be true, that on the scale of things, Paul didn’t quite measure up in the preaching department. But if Paul wasn’t very eloquent or very polished in his preaching, he was at least solidly committed to the truth. That much we know for sure. We can clearly see it in his writings. And, if he wasn’t that great a preacher, he was an awesome writer. Paul understood the gospel, and he was able to articulate it in a way that people could understand. Besides, when all is said and done, it is Paul’s writings that have endured, not his sermons.
On another level, though, it is probably just fine that Paul wasn’t a very good preacher, because that leaves room for the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul understands that the role of the Holy Spirit, and that the power that the Spirit imparts, is absolutely essential to the transmission of the gospel. We dare not limit the activity or the power of the Holy Spirit in anything that we do. Mere preaching is nothing, unless the Holy Spirit accompanies it. And the Holy Spirit needs to be present in both the speaking and in the listening. A really good, really powerful sermon is useless, unless the Holy Spirit is the one who is speaking to the listeners. And, on the other hand, a really bad sermon can have a profound impact on all who hear it, if the listeners are open to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
The trouble is, we tend to rate our preachers not so much on what the Holy Spirit might have to say to us through them, but rather on how well they keep our attention, or on whether they are able to keep us awake or not. Poor Paul was preaching one day, and he was going really long, and there was a young fellow sitting in a window, and the young fellow dozed off and fell three stories to the ground. He nearly died! Fortunately the windows here are both hard to sit in and difficult to fall out of. Although I suppose a determined sleeper could do both.
In verse 5, Paul speaks of the absolute importance of the Holy Spirit in preaching. Paul says that in addition to coming to Thessalonica with power and full conviction, he also came “in the Holy Spirit.” And then, in verse six, Paul adds that the people of Thessalonica received the gospel message with joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And so the Holy Spirit was present in Thessalonica, both in the speaking and in the listening.
First of all, we’ve got Paul’s preaching, maybe not that good, but certainly truthful, pushed along and empowered by the Holy Spirit. And then we’ve got the people of Thessalonica, hearing the message, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and responding with joy.
And that’s what happens when we all open ourselves up to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t preaching alone that is powerful, it isn’t even listening that is powerful. It is preaching and listening in the realm of the power of the Holy Spirit. Preaching and listening, without the Spirit doesn’t accomplish a thing.
So now let’s take a look at the miracle at Thessalonica. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the believers in Thessalonica became an example to all of the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. Word was spreading about the faith of the people of Thessalonica and about the work that the Holy Spirit was doing among them. And that is wonderful. There must have been a ton of joy and excitement about what God was doing, because word was getting out, in and around the communities that surrounded Thessalonica. When a congregation is inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit, there is no end to what can be accomplished, even if their house of worship is closed.
Paul might be exaggerating a little bit in verse eight, when he says this, but what a grand compliment for any congregation to receive! Listen carefully: “for the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known…”
Now the question. We know that the church in Thessalonica was unusual. This is a group of people who have turned away from their idols and have turned toward God, and who are now busy serving the living and true God. But what was it that made them such a wonderful example to believers everywhere? Was it the kinds of things that we sometimes think about when we’re trying to attract more people? What makes a church work these days? Is it a huge facility? Is it multiple worship services? How about nationally known speakers? Knitting groups, cooking classes, any of that? Probably not and especially not anymore, now that the coronavirus is raging around us.
Paul says in verse three that it was a work of faith, a labor of love and a steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ that caused the church at Thessalonica to become a wonderful example to believers everywhere.
Those are simple things, really, and they include a whole bunch of room to be creative, and we have go to be creative. I believe that we are in this for the long haul. Paul is saying that the Thessalonians understood that they were a called and chosen people of God. They understood that they should serve the Lord and one another, they knew that love must reign supreme in their midst, and that above all else, they knew that they must put their trust fully in Jesus Christ. And having done all of that, I suspect that the Holy Spirit simply worked out the rest of the details, and the result was a vibrant and active congregation that stood out as an example to believers everywhere, in spite living in the midst of an adverse situation.
But here’s the complicating kicker: Paul says that all of this happened in Thessalonica in spite of persecution, and rejection. At the same time that the Holy Spirit was at work among them, there was also another, negative force also at work. But the Holy Spirit won. The Holy Spirit always wins. In Thessalonica, there was persecution from the Romans, that’s a given. Followers of Jesus were always looking behind their backs for the inevitable Roman soldier who would do them no good at all. But a bigger problem for the folks in Thessalonica, was closer to home, and it was the pagan temples that promoted the worship of idols. They were losing business and they were fighting back. The church at Thessalonica was a genuine threat to those whose business was the worshiping of idols.
And as I was writing this sermon, I began to wonder, to whom are we a threat? Who, or what is threatened by the Thomaston Baptist Church? What evil structures are afraid of our ministry and our mission? That’s a hard question to answer because what we deal with today is mostly indifference. Nobody seems to care whether we’re following Jesus or not, so long as we keep to ourselves. And, unfortunately, we have learned to do that. We may be a threat to nothing that is evil. We’ve kept the faith, but we’ve kept it to ourselves. Is the world’s indifference threatened at all by us?
Let’s be brave. Let’s give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to win. Let’s be an example to the rest of the believers. Let’s rediscover then, the joy of receiving God’s word, let’s be inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit. And let us, in this community, find a work of faith, and a labor of love, and let us put our hearts to it even in the midst of a very challenging situation. For we do have a steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. And that hope is a threat to evil everywhere. If nothing else, we are learning from our present situation that the ministry and mission of the church is less inside of it’s walls than it is outside of it’s walls. And probably we should have learned this a long time ago.