Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg
with Tom Fuller
The Power of the Gospel
How often do we admire those who seem to have it altogether? Our culture teaches us that struggle and doubt mean failure. Even amongst the Christian community, if we show the slightest confusion over doctrine or a lack of understanding we feel labeled as immature and less than.
But as we will see as we go through Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians—struggle and uncertainty are just a fact of life and certainly a fact of living as a disciple of Jesus. What’s more important than having it all together is being open to embracing what you don’t know, and seeking understanding and growth through the struggles.
By way of introducing these letters, let’s turn back to the beginning of the Thessalonian church, found in Acts 17. Paul is on his second missionary journey. He’s had a break with Barnabas (his first ministry partner) and chooses Silas (also known as Sylvanus in Latin) to accompany him. He travels north from Jerusalem, though Asia Minor. At Lystra he meets Timothy, a young convert of a Jewish mom and Greek dad. Wanting to go further into Asia, he was prevented by the Holy Spirit and eventually directed to Macedonia—modern day Greece. He sails across the Aegean Sea through Neapolis, Philipi, Amphipolis and Apollonia.
It was in Philipi that Paul is arrested after freeing a girl from demon possession. In jail, Paul and Silas are praying and singing worship songs when the jail doors fly open. He ends up preaching the gospel to the jailer. He and his whole family get saved and then to protect the nascent church, Paul insists that the officials of the town apologize for imprisoning a Roman citizen without a trial.
In Acts 17 Paul, Silas and Timothy come to Thessalonica. As usual, Paul goes to the Jewish synagogue and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” This would have been what we call the Old Testament. He focused on the role of the Messiah as “suffering Savior” then revealed that the Messiah the Jews hoped for was, in fact, Jesus of Nazareth. The results are mixed. In Thessalonica, there were a lot of what are called “God fearers”. These are Gentiles who worship Yahweh but have not been circumcised. They responded to the Gospel along with leading women of the city.
As Paul often found, when Jews and God-fearers received the gospel, the Jews who rejected it became jealous. In this case they turned that jealousy into action. Thessalonica was known as a place where creating a public commotion was easy. The jealous Jews hired some “scoundrels” in a sort of rent-a-mob and started a riot. They blamed the riot on Paul and Silas. A guy named Jason was hosting Paul and so the crowd attacked his house—finding only Jason and some other brothers—they hauled them before the city magistrates with all kinds of accusations. Jason had to pay a bond to ensure he would keep this sort of thing from happening again (even though he didn’t start it) and Paul and company had to escape under cloak of darkness.
They head to Berea, where the folks there were more “open-minded” and “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” That’s what we should always do when in doubt, by the way, search the Scriptures instead of searching for scoundrels to make a fuss. We are likely to want something, anything, to keep us from having to deal with what the gospel is doing in us (we’ll get to that in a bit).
I say all that because what happened forced Paul and Silas to leave this nascent church before they had really gotten settled in the faith of the Messiah Jesus. They had more questions than answers. Paul was so concerned that he had Timothy stay in Berea after the mobsters from Thessalonica came to stir up trouble there as well. Paul went to Athens and then to Corinth, where Timothy reported that the church in Thessalonica was okay, though struggling with the continued persecution and unanswered theological questions.
It is in this environment that Paul pens this letter to them. With the possible exception of Galatians, this may have been Paul’s first epistle.
So the three founding members of the church—Paul, Silas, and Timothy—write this letter in hopes of clearing up some misconceptions and misunderstandings. It was written to the church “of” the Thessalonians. These were real people with real questions and concerns. The fact that God would inspire Paul to write to them is encouraging. God does want to answer our questions. Sometimes we don’t like the answer but that’s another issue entirely.
But notice what he says next: “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Coupling these two things together is second nature to us. But early in church history it was astounding to be able to see that Jesus is God. No one else can be linked to Yahweh in this way except Jesus. Jesus said: “I and the Father are one” John 10:30 and “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.” (John 14:6).
He then extends to them the most important components of coming into that relationship with the Father through the Son: grace and peace. Grace means the unmerited favor bestowed on us: the forgiveness of our sins. Peace is the result: “at-onement” with God once again.
Verses 2 through 10 are one long paragraph though we will only get through verse 6 today. Paul introduces the thought in verse 2. He “prays” for them and he “remembers” them. As we’ll see, Paul thanks God for how they received the gospel and have reflected God’s character. It is a reminder to them as it should be to us. Our prayer should be to always get back to that simple love for God and letting that self-sacrificing, other-centered affection pour out from us to others, whether they deserve it or not.
3 – 4
His first recollection involves the two parts of salvation—our response and God’s choice. And Paul is not alone in this. He tells them these things “in the presence of our God and Father.” First Paul commends them for three qualities—qualities he also used when writing to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:13). Faith, hope, and love. These three remain into eternity. These three things make up the character of our God—faithfulness, hopefulness, and love. Faith is trust, hope is the certainty of coming blessing, and love is that self-sacrificing, other-centered affection at the center of the heart of God.
But look how he characterizes these qualities: work of faith, labor of love, and endurance of hope. As James would say later “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14). If you don’t put trust to work, it’s not really trust, just lip-service. The Thessalonians put their faith to work—partly by sharing the gospel throughout Macedonia. The love you have is meaningless if it isn’t put to work. “Labor” here comes from a word “to cut” – the idea being “toil.” It takes hard work to reflect God’s love. You have to set yourself aside and your needs and hurts and look to the others’ needs first. Finally hope takes endurance. The Thessalonians were experiencing a lot of persecution. The hope of rescue, the hope of heaven, the hope of everything being set right took perseverance, even as it takes that same patience and active reliance on the promises of God’s rescue to help us make it through rough times in our lives.
All this is in the context that not only did they respond to the gospel but that it was God that called them and chose them—and not only that but it was out of God’s love for them that He elected them. Do you sometimes feel like God accepts you because He has to? He actually wants to spend all of eternity with you and makes it possible through His Son.
Next Paul goes more into detail about this transaction.
5 – 6
The gospel of Jesus Christ. The word in Greek means “good news”. But this isn’t just good news that your 401k is doing well. It is THE good news of all time—our debt to God because of our sins has been paid in full by the death, burial and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus. Notice how Paul describes the gospel. It is not mere words; it’s not just a philosophical argument to bandy about. He says first that it is:
- Power. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says it is the “power of salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16). The Greek word for “power” here is “dynamic.” It means to have ability. Paul sharing in that Thessalonian synagogue was more than just another Sabbath message. Responding to the gospel; placing your trust in Jesus, actually does something.
- In the Holy Spirit. The power of the gospel comes through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
John 16:7 But I tell you the truth, it is for your benefit that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. 8And when He comes, He will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.”
- With much assurance. The sense of this seems to be that the powerful working of the Spirit in the life of someone who believes the gospel brings with it a “deep conviction” or assurance that what was spoken is true and that we have truly come out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
The troublemakers in Thessalonica tried to paint Paul in a very bad light. But this witness by the power of the Spirit says otherwise. The world tries to paint good as bad, and evil as good. The key here is that Paul and his companions were not out for profit or actually any gain for themselves. Instead they sought the benefit of others. The Thessalonians saw that so much that they too became imitators of the same sort of character: the faith, hope, and love they saw in Paul, Silas, and Timothy.
As a result—despite being severely persecuted, the received the gospel with joy. You know, no matter how much dirt the culture throws at the gospel, its power, its appeal, its life-changing quality cuts through all that so we too can receive it with great joy.
In conclusion let me just outline this letter for us:
- Paul’s character in ministry (he, and the gospel are for their benefit)
- The present persecution (don’t be shaken by opposition)
- The process of sanctification (God’s not done with you yet)
- The coming rescue (God won’t leave you in the midst of this trouble forever)