Posts Tagged ‘the gospel’

Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We’re starting a series on Paul to the Thessalonians. Not sure yet if we will go on into 2 Thessalonians or not. For now I want us to look at 1 Thessalonians and break it down to see what it says, and see what we can learn from it to help us in our understanding and walk with God.

As we go through this I encourage you to read and meditate on this letter in your own times of study and prayer. Let’s begin with some background.

The city of Thessalonica

 – still exists today. It’s the second largest city in Greece. In Paul’s day it was also a very important city. It was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, a free city which gave it various political privileges and it was prosperous, with a good sea port, on the main east-west trade route and also on a north-south highway. Here’s a map:

As we’ll see most of the Thessalonians came out of idolatry, which was everywhere, as it was in all Gentile cities. They worshipped Aphrodite, Apollo, Kabirus, Zeus, Isis – just to name a few. And they were quite devoted to the worship of Roman emperors as gods.

Paul’s visit to Thessalonica

 – was a part of his second missionary journey chronicled in Acts 17. He traveled from Antioch in Syria, to the Galatian churches, to Troas and then over to Macedonia, to Philippi and then Thessalonica.

After he established a church, a great conflict broke out and persecution, so Paul had to leave quickly. He went on to Berea, Athens and then to Corinth. This caused real anxiety for two reasons. First, these new believers were left facing persecution alone, and second he wasn’t done teaching them all that they needed to know before he had to leave (3: 2,10).

So he sent Timothy back to check on them (3:2), and when he reported back to Paul at Corinth with good news (3:6), Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians as a response.

He wrote it around 50 AD, about 20 years after Jesus’ death. This was Paul’s second letter. And as such it is the second oldest New Testament document, after Galatians.

Let’s go through this a bit at a time.

The greeting – v. 1

“1Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.” This letter is actually from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. “We” language is prevalent throughout. But at several points “I” language comes out and it is clear that Paul is the one speaking (2:18, 3:5, 5:26).

[Silvanus (known as Silas in Acts) was from the Jerusalem church. He went with Paul after Paul and Barnabas separated. Timothy was a disciple from the Galatian city of Lystra that Paul picked up near the beginning of this mission trip. Timothy, of course, came to work with Paul long term.

The word “church” means “a gathering of people” – specifically of the people of God, modeled on the assembly of the congregation of Israel in the wilderness. Here Paul specifies that he is addressing the gathering in Thessalonica  – “in God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This in contrast to other gatherings, for instance the political gathering under Rome in Thessalonica.]

He begins by wishing them grace or God’s favor (an adaptation of the Greek “greetings”) and peace or wellbeing from God (from the typical Jewish greeting “shalom”).

The rest of chapter one is focused on –

Thanksgiving to God – vs. 2-10

“2We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers . . .” All of Paul’s letters, except Galatians, have a thanksgiving section. In this case Paul is really thankful because they are hanging in there with their faith. He wasn’t sure what was going on. His thanksgiving even spills over into chapters 2 and 3 as well.

He says that he gives thanks for them “always” and prays for them “constantly.” Now I would submit to you that this is not some super spiritual ability to give thanks and pray always even while you do other things. It is rather a reference to his daily prayers – as was the common Jewish tradition. He is simply saying that each morning and evening he mentions them in prayer to God.

He gives thanks specifically for their Christian lives. “3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ . . .”

“Faith, love and hope” is a common triad in Paul and it functions here as a summary of their Christian life. And it can for us too:

  • Faith has to do with what we believe and our trust in God for salvation
  • Love has to do with living the Christian life day in and day out
  • Hope has to do with what we look forward to when Jesus returns.

Paul is saying that their faith is producing works, their love labors and their hope steadfastness. They are doing well. And so he gives thanks for this.

He also gives thanks for God’s transforming work in them. “4knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

He notes God’s love for them and tells them that they are chosen, that is, they are a part of the people of God (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). They have been cut off from family and friends because they have turned away from their old lives, and they are being persecuted.

But they are “brothers and sisters” now; a part of a new group, a new family – the church.

How does he know this? Because God’s Spirit was really at work when he ministered to them, empowering Paul’s preaching and working in their hearts to bring them to full conviction of the truth. “Power” here most likely includes miracles. (Galatians 5:3, 2 Corinthians 12:12f, Romans 15:18-19)

Paul also gives thanks for their faithfulness in suffering. “5You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”

Paul is saying that they had just come from Philippi, having suffered for their faith and they were under threat in Thessalonica. And now the Thessalonians have imitated this example of faithful suffering for their faith.

There is actually a chain of imitation here: Jesus suffered for his faithfulness, Paul followed his example, the Thessalonians have now followed both Paul and Jesus, and now they are an example to others in Greece.

But not only did they suffer, they experienced “the joy of the Holy Spirit” in their suffering. Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you . . . Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Even in suffering you can rejoice because of the knowledge that you will be blessed and because of the work of God in you by the Spirit.

Finally, Paul gives thanks for their witness. “8For 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, so that we need not say anything.”

The story of what God did among them and their faith has  spread throughout Greece (Macedonia and Achaia). And even beyond – “everywhere.” Everybody is hearing about their story.

“9For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Paul is hearing from others about what happened in Thessalonica. Perhaps others from Philippi and Berea came along with Timothy to report to him at Corinth.

And again we have a description of their Christian lives:

  • They turned to God from idols
  • They now they serve the living and true God
  • And now they wait for Jesus to return

And Paul is thankful for this.

As Paul gives thanks for all these things, several things stand out for us to reflect on.

How are you doing in your daily prayers?

What do you give thanks for without ceasing? Who do you pray for constantly? Just as Paul was an example for them (and us) in the area of faithfulness in suffering, so he is a model for us of disciplined prayer. How are you doing?

The gospel message

What Paul preached comes out clearly in just a few words in vs. 9-10. “. . . how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Let me highlight some things from these verses: 1) It has to do with a person named Jesus; 2) he is the Son of God; 3) he died and has been resurrected; 4) he was exalted to heaven; 5) we are to wait for his return; 6) final judgment or “wrath” is coming. This is God’s just judgment on human sin; 7) but Jesus is our deliverer.

The same question that confronted the Thessalonians when they heard this gospel still confronts us. Are we going to receive God’s mercy to us by putting our faith in Jesus – who delivers us from judgment for our sin?

We also get a picture of what –

A true Gospel transformation

– looks like. Think about your own life as we go through this. 1) The Spirit moved in their hearts – v. 5. There is not coming to God without God first coming to us and working in us. 2) They turned from idols to God, which speaks to true repentance – v. 9. 3) They serve God with their lives – v. 9.  4)  Their faith is producing works – v. 3.   5) Their love for others is evident in their behavior – v. 3. 6) They have steadfast hope as they wait for Jesus – vs. 3-10. And 7) they do all this while suffering for their faith with joy – v. 6.

God aims through his gospel to transform every part of us in just these ways. What does your Christian life look like? If this isn’t a picture of your Christian life, I encourage you now to renew your faith in Jesus and to invite the Holy Spirit into your life to transform you.

William Higgins

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Our text today is often called the parable of the two sons. I think parents with teens will relate to it. It’s about a father trying to get his kids to do chores. One kid is rude about it and the other doesn’t do anything.

But in all seriousness, it’s an important Scripture because it gives us a very clear understanding of what God wants from us.

It comes right in the middle of a fairly long confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of Jerusalem – the chief priests and the elders of the people (21:23). And this is the first of three parables intended to give them a message.

First, let’s work at –

Understanding the parable

Jesus initiates this stage of the conversation with a question. v. 28 – “What do you think?” They had just refused to answer a question he posed, but as we will see in what follows, this parable forces them to answer him.

Now before we move on, let me say here that in some ancient manuscripts of the New Testament the order of the two sons is actually reversed. So if your Bible has this you will know what is going on. For instance the older New American Standard Bible. I am using the ESV as always.

The first son. v. 28 – “A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’” The word translated as “first” can also mean “older,” as in the oldest son. Some translations take it this way.

“Sons” is actually the word for “children.” And when the father says, “son, go and work,” it is actually “child, go and work,” a more affectionate way of putting it. He is asking him to do some work on the family farm.

v. 29 – “And he answered, ‘I will not.’” The son’s response is rude and disrespectful. In its culture this would be seen as rebellious and unacceptable. And it’s a real contrast to the father’s affectionate address to him.

The story goes on, v. 29 – “but afterward he changed his mind and went.” Although he said no, he does work.

The word behind the phrase, “changed his mind” can also be translated as ‘he regretted it’ or ‘he thought differently about it,’ or even ‘he repented.’

This part of the parable has some connection to Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son, the only other parable of Jesus that involves a father and two sons. The first son here is quite similar to the prodigal son. And both show us what repentance looks like. They changed their minds and acted differently.

The second son. v. 30 – “And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir.’” This is a very respectful answer, in contrast to the first son’s words to his father. The word “sir” is actually the word for ‘lord’ or ‘master.’

v. 30 – “but did not go.” He said yes, but he was full of hot air.

Now let’s look at –

Jesus’ interpretation

v. 31 – “’Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.’”

  • From this we see that the father represents God.
  • The first son represents the tax collectors & prostitutes. They said no to God initially, but when they heard the message of the kingdom, they changed their minds and began to do God’s will.
  • The second son represents the chief priests & elders. They said yes to God, but when they heard the message, they did not act.
  • And most likely the vineyard represents Israel – the people of God.

The point of the parable is clear. Those who refuse God but later repent and obey, like the first son, will go into the kingdom. And they will go in before those who say yes, but don’t obey God, like the second son. (Indeed the leaders won’t get in at all unless they repent.)

Jesus gives his strong affirmation to this lesson when he says, “Truly I say to you.” He is saying, ‘take note!’ ‘This is absolutely the truth.’

Finally, notice how Jesus forces them to answer. The only possible answer to his question is that the first son did the father’s will. Yet the first son undeniably represents well repentant sinners – those moral outcasts that these leaders looked down on.

And the leaders look very much like the second son, in that they did not take heed to the message of the kingdom. So they, in effect, condemn themselves.

Now this parable can be applied quite broadly, but in this context Jesus applies it specifically to –

John the Baptist’s ministry

– the subject of the argument at this point between Jesus and the leaders of Jerusalem.

v. 32 – “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him.” Even though they had said yes to obey God, they did not believe John was from God. So they didn’t do what he said.

Although John came in the way of righteousness, that is, he was righteous and preached a righteous message from God, they rejected him.

v. 32 – “but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” Even though they had said no to God, they believed John and repented.

Finally, Jesus says, v. 32 – “And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” Even after they saw others respond, they rejected him, and would not change their minds about him, and heed his message of repentance. They blew it twice with John, just like they were blowing it with Jesus as they spoke with him.

Lessons for us

1. We learn what God wants from us. God wants us to believe and respond to the message of the kingdom. And how do we respond? We are to respond by obeying God. To say it another way, God is looking for a change within that leads to obedience; so that we come to do our heavenly father’s will, instead of ours or anyone else’s.

This is the bottom line of what God wants from us.

2. Don’t be the second son. As Christians we have said “yes” to God, and so we are reminded in this parable that we need to come through on our commitment. We need to make sure we are working in the vineyard, doing God’s will; using our gifts and doing all that God tells us to do.

Now, the second son echoes Matthew 7:21. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Both use the address of “Lord,” and both don’t obey the will of the father. And both are, as Jesus interprets the parable, excluded from the kingdom of God. (Davies & Allison)

This is a word to us not just the ancient leaders of Israel. We must come through on our commitments to God.

3. Don’t be self-righteous. We need humility so we don’t become like the leaders of Jerusalem.

Think about it. Who are the ones who will never repent? Rank sinners? No. There’s a chance for them. The ones who will never repent are those who think they don’t need to repent; who don’t see the need; who think they are in the right.

Paul says, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” – 1 Corinthians 10:12. This is a warning for us. You never get to a place where you can’t receive God’s message to you; where you don’t need to be open to repentance.

4. The gospel is great news for sinners! So if you are here today and you have sin in your life – I mean even really bad sin; you have made terrible and shameful choices – it isn’t too late.

You haven’t done God’s will so far? Jesus teaches that you can change your mind! You can have a change within so that you believe the message and start to obey your heavenly father. It isn’t too late.

And if there is anyone here today who wants to do this very thing I invite you to come forward . . ..

[Note: This is not an example of the first and the last from 20:16. In this last verse the first and the last has to do with equalization, not reversal – both the first and the last were made equal.]
[Note: Literary structure of the parable.
A. Question/two sons: What do you think? A man had two sons.
B. First son: And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.
`B. Second son: And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.
`A. Question/two sons: Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

William Higgins

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