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August 2004

Last month we considered the example set by Paul and his fellow missionaries when they evangelised Thessalonica. We saw that they, in turn, were following the example of Christ who, ‘being in the form of God … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death’ that he might redeem us to God (Philippians 2:5-8).

The Thessalonians themselves responded by becoming ‘examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe’ (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7). In what way did they exemplify their faith? And what can we learn from it?

Receiving the Word

They set an example, firstly, in the way they ‘received the word’. Paul writes, ‘When you received the word of God … you welcomed it not as the word of men but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe’ (2:13).

The way we receive the word is vitally important. Few believers today share the experience of the Thessalonians – the ‘effective working’ of God’s word in us is often difficult to discern.

The result is a loveless, joyless, prayerless, almost nominal Christianity. On page 14 of this issue Michael Haykin quotes the Puritan John Howe:

‘We are dead, the Spirit of God is … retired in a very great degree … even from Christian assemblies … It is plain, too sadly plain, there is a great retraction of the Spirit of God even from us [who preach]; we [do] not know how to speak living sense unto souls, how to get within you; our words die in our mouths, or drop and die between you and us’.

How remarkably that reflects the condition of much of Christ’s church in our own day. Part of the answer must surely be that we do not receive the preached word as God’s word – we have no lively sense of the divine origin and radical intent of the Scriptures we hear expounded from the pulpit.

We say it is God’s word but we treat it as the message of a man. We shall see no change until we welcome it for what it truly is – the living word of the living God.

Spreading the word

Secondly, the Thessalonians set an example by spreading the message of Christ – ‘from you the word of the Lord sounded forth … in every place’ (1:8). Transformed by what they had received, they had to tell others.

This was spontaneous, not the result of an organised evangelistic campaign. The new life they had received through the gospel simply overflowed.

We are not told exactly how they reached the furthermost regions of their land, but I suspect it involved both direct missionary endeavour and ‘gossipping the gospel’ – as some of their number travelled for trade and commerce.

Perhaps the lack of enthusiastic spontaneity in our own evangelism stems from the way we ‘receive the word of God’ – or fail to do so. And might the problem lie, in part, with our reluctance to preach Christ and his gospel to believers, that they might be stirred up to proclaim him?

Turning from idols

Notice, thirdly, that they ‘turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God’ (1:9). Although this refers to their conversion it should also challenge believers.

Jesus warned his disciples that they could not serve God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24). Paul felt it necessary to counsel the church at Corinth, ‘Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say’ (1 Corinthians 10:14-15).

How can professing Christians fall into this sin? By coveting the things of this world above Christ and his kingdom (Ephesians 5:5). Demas forsook Paul, ‘having loved this present world’ (2 Timothy 4:10).

An idol is anyone or anything that robs Jesus Christ of his supremacy in our lives, and too many of us try to serve two masters. But this is impossible. If we are to serve the living God we must flee the idolatry that gives priority to self and not to Christ.

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