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TEXT: I Thessalonians 1:1
SUBJECT: Thessalonians #1: First Greeting
Today, with God's blessing, we'll begin to study the Thessalonian Epistles. Epistle, you know, is a fancy word for letter. That's what we have here, letters written by Paul and sent to his friends in Thessalonica. But this is not all we have-we also have Scripture. I and II Thessalonians are both the words of Paul and the Word of God, fully, and at the same time. How Paul can write the Word of God while choosing his own words is a mystery. But it's true. Because the Bible says so.
You know who Paul is. He is the former enemy of Christ who became an Apostle or messenger of the Lord. He did not choose that life for himself, but it was chosen for him. On his way to wipe out the church in Damascus, Paul was struck down by a blinding light from heaven. It wasn't the sun, breaking through the clouds that day, but the Son of God breaking into Paul's life. And taking possession of it from that time on.
As an Apostle, Paul went on three missionary tours, mostly in Asia Minor and Southern Europe. On the second one, he came to Thessalononica, a big city in Macedonia, near Greece. There, he, with a few friends, went into the synagogue, and for three Sabbaths, he preached Christ from the Hebrew Bible. A handful of the Jews believed and a great many of the God-fearing Gentiles did too. When the unbelieving Jews saw the success he was having, they became envious, and stirred up the mob against Paul. Had they been able to lay their hands on him, they would have killed him, for sure. But Paul sneaked out of town and got away safely-for a while.
In any event, a church was formed in Thessalonica, and now, a few years later, Paul was writing to them. Most scholars believe this is the first book Paul wrote and date it some time in the late 40's AD.
This early date shows the power of the risen Christ and the vigor of the early church. Inside of twenty years, the church went from an upstairs apartment to all over the known world. With little organization, less money--and no gimmicks!
As far as I can tell, there is no one major theme in I Thessalonians. Like a personal letter you'd write, it's got a little of this, that, and the other in it. Paul thanks God for his dear friends, he defends himself against false accusations, he pleads for holiness in our lives, he demands discipline in the church, he says something about the Second Coming of Christ, and closes with a long list of dos and don'ts.
This off-hand approach does not lessen the value of the Book at all, but, to my way of thinking, makes it doubly useful. In a few minutes, you can read up on a dozen important issues. In what other book can you find out about Sex and the Second Coming on the same page!
Today, we'll have a look the opening verse of the Epistles. It's called The Greeting, and it's made up of three parts: (1) the writers, (2) the readers, and (3) the wishes. Let's get to it-and the love of God be with us!
The greeting begins in the standard way-with the writer giving his name. Our letters end with the writer's name, but in Paul's day they began with it. This is good idea, it seems to me, because the value of a letter depends a great deal on who wrote it.
The writers are Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. `Silvanus' is another name for 'Silas', who was with Paul in Thessalonica, and was well known and respected in the Early Church. 'Timothy' was a young man of real quality. Of all the fine people Paul worked with, Timothy was the best. In another place, Paul said of him, I have no man like minded, who will naturally care for your state. Paul's other partners had to be told and reminded and beat over the head to think of others before themselves. But not Timothy. He thought of others first-without being told to!
Paul, of course, is an Apostle, and leader of the Gentile Church.
A couple of things can be learned from the names that open the Letter. For one thing, no title is used. In some places, Paul underlines his office. In Galatians, most of all, he is at pains to prove that he is a full Apostle and not a flunky or a junior partner. Everything Peter, James, and John had, he had as well. His eyes had seen the same Lord. His ears had heard the same call.
Paul, an Apostle--not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.
There is nothing like this in Thessalonians. Paul goes by his first name. But that's not quite true: Paul isn't the man's first name-Saul is. Paul is a nickname. Know what it means--Paulos? It means Shorty! He says nothing about his special calling or gifts or privileges. He can invoke them when he needs to, but only when he needs to.
Paul is a man not full of himself. He doesn't need titles; he doesn't need others to bow and scrape. He takes his work seriously, but not himself. He's a humble man; he doesn't strike a humble pose, he's the real thing.
There's a lesson in here for us: God has not made everyone equal. There is an order in the home, in the church, at work, and elsewhere. This means some people give the orders and others take them. If this is not done, you will have chaos. So let it be done, but as done gently and quietly as possible! We need pastors and hubands and mothers and bosses, but we don't need bullies! Most of all, we don't need bullies who justify their pride with verses from the Bible!
I'll never forget hearing Achille Blaize, with his thick French-Caribbean accent and raspy voice, tear into men who bully their wives and back it up by saying the husband is the head of the wife. Of that kind of man, he said,
You're not the head of your wife; you're her knucklehead!
If the One with all authority uses it to wash the feet of His disciples, let us use our lesser privileges for the good of others and not to feed our egos.
A second thing makes the same point, in a slightly different way. Paul wrote the Epistle, but he doesn't take all the credit. He puts Silas and Timothy alongside his own name.
This is how we ought to think. Everyone is dependent on others. No one has ever done the whole thing himself! Why worry about who gets the glory? The important thing is that good is done-not who did it or who did most of it or who did the hardest part of it.
If you suffer this craving for praise, keep two things in mind: grace and judgment. Any good you've done was done by grace. This means there is no room for boasting. Nobody worked harder than Paul and with less encouragement. But did he take the credit for all the heroic good he did? No.
I labored more abundantly than them all, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
If this doesn't satisfy you, remember the Day of Judgment is coming, and on that Day,
Every work will be brought into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.
If nobody else notices you, God does, and in His good time, you'll get all the credit you deserve. (If that's what you really want).
If Paul, Silas, and Timothy sent the letter, to whom did they send it? They mailed it to.
The church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Every word is full of significance and glory. I'll try to unpack just a little bit of it.
First, they are the church. In 30 AD, 'church' was a common noun-an assembly or gathering of any kind. It was not a religious term at all. But twenty years later, the 'Church' became in fact, what Israel was only in theory: The People of God. And more than that, it became the House of God. The Glory left the Temple in Jerusalem and came to the temples in Antioch, in Ephesus, in Rome, and in Thessalonica. Just think of it: a dozen people, meeting in a home or a barn, or maybe way off in the woods, became the Holy of Holies-the residence of God on earth.
This means it is a great honor to be part of the Church. Who am I to shake hands with a man who will one day judge the angels? Who are you to sit next to the woman chosen by God for salvation? Who are we to ignore or to scold children who are sons and daughters of the Living and True God?
Have you ever been inside an old and magnificent Cathedral? It sends a tingle up and down your spine. There's something about it that is bigger than you are, that is older, and will be here long after the shopping malls and the fast food restaurants are torn down. A hush comes over you; a feeling of awe and smallness. You ought to feel that way every time you go to church-not to the building, but to the place where God's People are gathered. These are people loved before the world was made and who will outshine-and outlive the sun! If we knew what our gatherings were, we'd sing with more feeling than we do,
How sweet and awful is the place,
With Christ within the doors.
I love thy kingdom Lord,
The house of thine abode,
The Church our blessed Redeemer
Bought, with His own precious blood.
Next, they are the church of the Thessalonians. This underscores the grace of God in forming the Church. Thessalonica was a Greek city, wholly given to idolatry. There were some Jews there, of course, but they were stained by their surroundings, and they were far from the place that God had given them as a legacy.
How was a Church formed in Thessalonica of all places? In the same way it is formed anywhere else, by Grace Alone. We did not choose God, He chose us; we are saved by grace alone or not at all. We were once not a people, but now we are the people of God. Because God wants us and He gets what He wants!
Then, they are the church in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. To say the least, to be 'in God the Father' means they are not pagans; to be 'in Christ' means they are not Jews. They are people in fellowship with Heaven. They are citizens of heaven, in exile for now, but sure to come home in time.
What does it mean to be 'in God and Christ'? What doesn't it mean is easier to answer! It means to have God's favor; it means to belong to Christ; in the words of Henry Scougal, it means to have the life of God in the soul.
It means to share in God's life-and that means 'everlasting life'. Everlasting refers, not only to how long it goes on, but, mostly, to the kind of life it is.
In his book, Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift introduces us to the Immortals. These are people who never die. When Gulliver hears of them, he wishes he were one of them. But the people who know them are horrified by his wish. You see, the Immortals never die, but they age like anyone else. They have the aches and pains of an eighty year old man (when they're eighty), and they keep getting older. How feeble would a 300 year old man be? How far can Alzheimer's go in a thousand years? Their life is everlasting, but it's not worth having after a while!
This is not what we have 'in God and Christ'. We have the life we see, briefly, in our Lord after the Resurrection! This is a truly human life, of course, but a human life crowned with glory and power and wisdom and incorruptibility!
That's what we have, now in part, and in the Resurrection, we will have it in full.
Have you forgotten who you are? Many Christians have. They think of themselves as losers, as people without jobs or good jobs or a wife, a husband, or kids; they're overweight or getting old or they are not well. These things may be true of you, but they're not the whole truth. You're also in fellowship with God; you're also loved by Christ.
This is not a special status a few believers obtain, but the heritage of all God's People. Read the Thessalonian Epistles, and you'll find out these had the same problems you do: some were lazy, some struggled with unwholesome thoughts and deeds; some were grieving the loss of a loved one; some were mixed up on their doctrine; some were way too excited about the Second Coming of Christ. The Church in Thessalonica was a mess-just like the church in Fremont!
But they were the Mess in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
How dear the Epistles of Paul are to me! They show Christians in all stages of holiness. And every one of them in Christ and bound for glory!
The greeting ends with the customary words of Paul,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace is the unbought favor of God. We already have it, but Paul knows we need more of it. Peace is the enjoyment of grace. We have some of that too, but we could use some more.
The wishes tell us what Paul's priorities were and what ours ought to be. Of all the good things he could have wished for his friends, what he wants most for them are grace and peace, not more money or better jobs or healthier bodies or less fat in them!
These things are not wrong to want, if they're wanted less than grace and peace. But I wonder how many of us want the best things most? I don't always hear them in my prayers or in your complaints. Oh, how much we want the things we don't really need! And how little we want the things we need the most!
Put more grace and peace at the top of your wish list and maybe you'll have them.
Do you want grace? You can have it. Do you want peace-peace with God, peace with yourself, peace with others (on your side at least)? You can have them; everyone can have them, but only in one place: in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
By faith, get into fellowship with God and Christ and you'll have all you need and more than you could want.
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