The Word, the Gospel
1Thess.2:13 "And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers."
Paul loved the church in Thessalonica and it had a special place in his affections. You only have to read his first letter to them to realise that. And he wrote that letter because he wanted to encourage his Christian brothers and sisters there.
Paul wanted to assure them that their faith was genuine, that it was real. In order to do that he reminded them:
Firstly, of the way in which they had received the gospel and
Secondly, the effect that the gospel had had in transforming their lives
Paul wanted to let them know that he approved of the way in which they were now living their lives – he refers back to what he had previously taught them and it evidently contained a whole lot more than simply "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved".
Paul wanted to encourage them to keep on as they had started. The opposition they had experienced (and were experiencing) was not an indication that they had got things wrong but rather this was the common experience of genuine Christian believers.
Paul wanted at the same time to add some final instructions which would help them in their progression towards spiritual maturity.
In going about this task Paul would refer repeatedly to the word of God and the gospel and we are going to look at just what he had to say about it.
We’ll do so under three headings:
The Gospel Described
How the gospel came to them
How they received the gospel
So let’s get started.
The Gospel Described
Paul did not explain to the Thessalonians all over again what the gospel was – after all they had heard it before and they had responded to it already, they knew what the gospel was all about. But when we look more closely at what Paul wrote we do find some helpful descriptions of what the gospel is designed to achieve. These descriptions are all the more interesting in that are brought in almost as off the cuff remarks while addressing other matters.
In chapter 2:14-
v.16 "by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved"
The message Paul wanted to share was the message which would bring salvation to the Gentiles and the only message that does that is the gospel.
The Thessalonians themselves provided an excellent example of what it meant for Gentiles in general to be saved. The message they had heard had led them to:
1:9 "turn to God from idols, to serve the living and true God."
And it was the message of gospel that was able to bring this change about because:
It was an energetic message, ie. it was full of divine power and energy
It was a personal message for the power of it worked on a person from within
It was above all a message focused upon Jesus.
And what the gospel was able to do then it is still able to do today. Those who hear the gospel and to whom the Holy Spirit applies it are confronted by the reality of Jesus: crucified, dead and buried but raised again from the dead in resurrection power. The gospel points to him as the only one who is able to deliver us from the wrath of God.
No human message can truly do this. A man or a preacher might seek to influence a person with his arguments, his logic, his clever way with words, but no man can get inside another and influence him on the inside. If a man seeks to constrain another the constraint is all external – it takes the word of God to reach the heart and to work there.
If this is the case then all human efforts will prove futile unless and until God decides to do his own special work. Our task is to share and to publish the good news, we’ll want to do it clearly and accurately but the most magnificent sermon or explanation will only ever be effective if God uses it. Similarly the simplest stuttering sharing of the good news will produce fruit of a hundredfold when God determines it will.
How we should therefore seek God in prayer to do the work in our churches and gatherings that only he can!
How the Gospel came to the Thessalonians
It was the apostle Paul himself who had shared the gospel with the Thessalonians and he reminds them in the letter the conditions in which he did so, the attitude that he had adopted as he did so, and how God had himself been powerfully involved in it all.
Paul’s preaching of the gospel was no academic or theoretical business. He was totally and passionately involved in what he was preaching and his preaching arose out of genuine personal experience. He wasn’t recommending something that he had never tried himself. He preached a gospel that had transformed his own life completely. And he went on preaching that same gospel even when to do so brought him real personal difficulties and hardship. He reminded the Thessalonians that immediately prior to preaching to them he had suffered significantly in Philippi as he sought to do exactly the same thing there.
Instead of being cowed or intimidated by that experience he had carried on even though the circumstances were still highly unfavourable. Paul wasn’t blowing his own trumpet – he knew his boldness came from God:
1Thess.2:2 "But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict."
The message that Paul passed on was a message that he had tried and tested in the face of repeated opposition and the Thessalonians knew that he was preaching a message that most definitely met the test.
But it wasn’t only the message that had stood the test – Paul reminded the Thessalonians that he too had passed his test and had faithfully transmitted that message to them. He had brought the gospel to them in open and honest integrity:
He hadn’t added any errors or made any mistakes in communicating the truth
He had not been driven by any impure or unworthy motives
He had neither tried to mislead or deceive his hearers
What did motivate him was not a desire to please man and to be well-
And then Paul seems to repeat himself all over again such is the importance of proclaiming the truth, the word of God, with the right heart motivation.
He hadn’t resorted to flattery
He hadn’t been after their money
He wasn’t looking for fame
He didn’t even make the legitimate demands that his standing as an apostle entitled him to
He even goes so far as to call God to witness that he is not exaggerating but simply telling the truth!
And still Paul hadn’t finished reminding the Thessalonians just how he had shared the gospel with them. He hadn’t done it in a harsh way; he handed rammed the gospel down their throats. But neither had he preached the word of God to them in a cold, disinterested manner. He didn’t simply lay out his message and leave them to make of it what they wanted, as one who had no concern for how it the message would be received might do. No, instead he had behaved towards them with all the tenderness, gentleness and compassion that a nursing mother might show to her children:
1Thess.2:7 "But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children."
A little further on in the letter Paul will also compare himself to a concerned father who carefully exhorts and encourages his offspring.
And as Paul acted in these ways God demonstrated his thorough approval. The word which Paul spoke to the Thessalonians came to them backed up by God himself:
1Thess.1:5 "our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction."
How are we to understand this? Was Paul talking about miracles? That is how some folk want to argue maintaining that we can’t expect people to believe without some miraculous demonstration taking place to convince them. Well it is true that on occasion Paul was enabled to perform miracles but he certainly didn’t maintain that miracles were the power of God unto salvation, that honour and privilege he reserved to the gospel itself (see Rom.1:16). In addition to that there is no record that any miracle was done in Thessalonica. When Paul first preached there he met with stern opposition from the Jewish community who stirred things up so much that Paul and Silas had to slip away to safety during the night.
And yet it was "brothers" who sent them on their way. In other words the gospel had produced a powerful effect upon the hearts and lives of at least some in the town. The gospel had come with full converting power. The Holy Spirit had done his special work: he had convicted some of sin, of righteousness and of judgment and he had brought them savingly to Christ. Such was this divine activity that the Thessalonians converts knew without the shadow of a doubt that what they had heard and believed was true – it was God’s truth, God’s word, the gospel of God that they had heard and received.
We want preachers and evangelists with this same spirit that motivated the apostle Paul. We want men and women who will be resolute in sharing the good news with others carefully examining themselves so that they don’t corrupt the message with too much of themselves. We want preachers and evangelists who will feel passionately about the truth they have to share with others because they have felt the force of it in their own lives and so know its true value. And we stand in need of those who will preach this old, old story with the same sense of compassion and concern that so marked out the apostle Paul. We want ministers who love us enough to proclaim God’s word to us and not their own opinions however interesting those opinions might appear to be. We need ministers and missionaries who will go on telling us God’s truth when circumstances are anything but favourable. We don’t want men who will set their sails by the winds that blow through our godless society and water down or change what God has said. No, we want and need men who will declare the word of God to us. Let them do so winsomely and attractively and clearly, but let them above all be men men who look to God knowing that he alone can give the increase.
How the Thessalonians Received the Gospel
The gospel message produced its beneficial effects in the lives of the Thessalonians because they did receive it. It wasn’t enough for them to hear the message they had to receive it, that is, they had to warmly embrace it as they took it to heart and brought it into their lives. They didn’t sit back and say "That’s nice" and do nothing about it. No, they sat up and said "That’s wonderful and it’s been done for me! Praise God!"
Well I’m not certain about the words they used but I do know the gospel they heard didn’t leave them indifferent but they responded enthusiastically to it and it made them glad even though the gospel came to them in the most trying of circumstances:
1Thess.1:6 "you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit,"
They didn’t receive the gospel and keep it hidden away in the deep recesses of their own lives as though religion was a purely private matter to be kept out of the public domain. No, they gave it free reign in their lives allowing it to transform their lives and eagerly to follow where the truth of the message led them.
The gospel led them to adopt a completely changed life-
1Thess.1:7 "For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere,"
And the reason why they were so transformed, why they shared the message so widely, and why everyone knew something of what had happened to them, was that they had not received Paul’s message as some helpful piece of kindly advice on how to live a fulfilled life. They hadn’t received it as a sociological blueprint for restoring community values nor a means of overcoming unwanted teenage pregnancies nor as the latest thing on tacking abuse and discrimination. It worked so powerfully on them because they received it as it was – the word of God, the gospel of God.
1Thess.2:13 "when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers."
The work of Bible translation is not an end in itself. It is vital work, crucial work but to be truly useful it must be the beginning of something far greater, something far more important. When a new translation project has been completed the real work of making the gospel message known is only just beginning. The task of Bible translation takes many hours and a great deal of effort from dedicated teams working hard over extended periods of time. There is study, preparation, survey work, analysis, comparison, field testing and many many more things that must come together before a gospel, a NT or eventually the whole Bible can be accurately translated.
Once the translation work has been completed the most important work remains to be accomplished and that is the work that God alone can do. He must convince men and women boys and girls to receive his life-
Let us continue to pray for the work of Bible translation and let us pray that God will use his word to bring more of his chosen people into the family. But we must not make the mistake of simply approving what others are doing or even of praying for them while at the same time failing to receive God’s gospel into our own lives.
And to God be the glory.