Speeding ahead and honoured
Reading: Acts 17:1-
"Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honoured, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ."
If someone asks you whether you are you a half-
You know of course what they mean and what they’re getting at. They want to know what your basic outlook on life is; they want to know whether your take on life is fundamentally positive or negative.
And two people looking at exactly the same glass of water can describe it in different ways depending on their perspective – the optimist focuses on what he has and so says it’s half-
Abraham Lincoln put it more poetically when he wrote:
"We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses."
Well, this afternoon we’re not interested in glasses be they half-
Paul was no stranger to difficulty and opposition in his life as a Christian missionary. The mission trip during which the church at Thessalonica was formed was no different.
Shortly after this trip had begun a split took place in the mission team. Paul and Barnabas disagreed over a question of personnel and the only way forward was to separate and each go their own way.
Paul carried on with Silas and soon Timothy was added to the team. Things were not yet straightforward though and the team experienced frustration as they tried to determine just where they ought to go. This was finally resolved when a clear call came to cross over to Europe and minster there.
Gospel success quickly followed in Philippi with some significant conversions taking place. However this success came at a price – opposition. Paul and Silas were arrested, badly treated and thrown into prison even though they had done nothing wrong.
They were released having been fully vindicated and travelled on. It was not long before they had arrived at Thessalonica and there carried on as they had previously. Paul went to the local Jewish synagogue where three weeks running he taught from the Jewish Scriptures, what we call the OT of the Bible. Paul focused on what had been written about the Messiah and in particular the need for the Messiah to suffer and then to rise again from the dead. He also clearly identified Jesus as being the Messiah these Scriptures spoke about.
Once again this clear proclamation of the gospel message of Jesus was met with success and once again this served to stir up violent opposition. It was quickly decided that it wasn’t safe for the missionaries to stay any longer in Thessalonica and they headed off to Berea which initially proved to be something of a refuge for them. Soon news of the progress of the gospel that was now taking place in Berea got back to Thessalonica and Paul’s opponents there now made their way to Berea where they caused more trouble. Paul left to make his way to Athens leaving instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as they could.
Paul writes to the Thessalonians
Paul remained concerned about the Thessalonians and longed for news of them. Eventually he sent Timothy to visit. Upon his return to Paul Timothy carried good news concerning the progress of the church. No, it wasn’t perfect and there were some issues that needed to be clarified for them but they were standing firm in their faith. Paul’s letters flow from his joy of hearing this positive report and his desire to help them continue in the right direction.
In the words of our text Paul urges the Thessalonians to continue to pray for him in his ministry as a gospel preacher and in doing so he gives an interesting commentary on just how he viewed the coming of the gospel to them.
Paul wanted to see the gospel "speed" on its way just as it had in Thessalonica. Thus in Paul’s estimation the gospel made rapid progress when some were responding and taking it seriously. The message of the gospel was truly "honoured" when some, though by no means all, had embraced it. In Thessalonica the church had been founded with:
Many devout Greeks
A good number of leading women
The fact that the proclamation of this gospel had met with persistent and even violent opposition by no means altered his appreciation of what had happened and indeed may well have been a feature he took into consideration when he spoke of gospel progress.
What are some of the implications of this for us?
Firstly, Paul was happy to rejoice in the positives and he did not write off these positives merely because of the accompanying negative realities of hostility and opposition. In other words Paul was in no danger of despising the day of small things and we must be careful that we don’t either. Let us rejoice when even a few receive and thus honour the gospel message.
Secondly, Paul did not allow the negative reactions and responses to stop him working hard to make the Lord’s message known. He continued to proclaim the truth and invited the Thessalonians to share in the work by means of their prayer support.
The Experience of the Thessalonians
The believers in Thessalonica were well aware of the dangers and difficulties associated with the spread of the gospel and the proclamation of its message. They had seen first-
And yet they were aware of something else too, something else they themselves saw at first-
Paul wanted to give the Thessalonians some understanding as to just why the gospel message that they had welcomed and honoured by embracing provoked a completely different type of reaction in others. We too need to hear what he has to say because we can be baffled by the rejection of a message that we have found to be nothing but good and positive.
The answer Paul gave was a simple one – not everyone has faith.
This answer not only explains why some people react with such hostility towards the gospel message it also explains why the prayer that Paul asks for is so absolutely essential. Faith is not something that a person can work up by themselves but it is the gift of God who alone is able to give it:
The fact that the church in Thessalonica existed was due to the fact that God had given them their faith – the fact that we are found believing this afternoon is again due to God having given us faith. These facts demonstrate that God is willing and indeed keen to give faith and this he generally does by using his word:
Rom.10:17 "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ."
Do we want faith, strong faith? Then we must expose ourselves to the Word of God. We must listen to it and seek to understand it – we must not imagine that we will ever be strong in the faith if we neglect or ignore God’s word. It is by the imperishable seed, the Word of God, that we have been born again and it is that same word applied by the Spirit of God that will enable us to grow and to be strong.
Having declared that not everyone has faith Paul has given himself the opportunity of highlighting an important contrast. While faithless men may behave in evil and wicked ways the Lord, on the other hand, is always faithful; he is always dependable, always trustworthy. The Lord can be relied upon to keep his promises; he can always be trusted to do what is right and what is good.
Elsewhere Paul reminds believers of the sovereign goodness of God which they can count upon and in which they can and should rejoice. After all he oversees every detail of the believer’s life and does so to ensure the believer’s ultimate good:
Rom.8:28 "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
Here in his letter to the Thessalonians Paul wants to write of how the Lord can be trusted not only to strengthen and firmly establish the believer in his faith but also to guard and protect him against the assaults of the evil one. This is of course entirely in line with the way in which Jesus taught his disciples to pray:
Mt.6:13 "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (or ‘the evil one’).
Paul would continue with a prayer of his own that is recorded for us in v.5. In that short prayer he shows us practically and in positive terms what not being led into temptation will look like:
2Thess.3:5 "May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ."
The more the believer is led to consider the love of God the more the believer will be brought to love God in return – "we love because he first loved us" 1Jn.4:19. In a similar manner the more we consider the patient endurance of our Lord Jesus Christ the more we will be enabled to persevere through the difficulties we might encounter in our lives as his followers.
When Paul wrote to the believers in Thessalonica he could express his God-
If Paul had written this letter not to the church in Thessalonica but to the church at Sunnyhill do you think he could have expressed a similar confidence concerning us and our obedience to his instructions? Are we really interested in the spread of the gospel? Do we really want to see it speed on and spread more and more widely? Do we want genuinely want the message of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to be honoured as others hear it, receive it, embrace it and are transformed by it?
May it indeed be so!
And to God be the glory.