Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 22, 2023
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Commentary
Larry (not his real name) was as crusty a person as I’ve ever met. While he professed to be a Christian, he’d alienated nearly everyone, including members of his family and church. His long-suffering wife was one of the few people who continued to stand by him, perhaps as much out of pity as almost anything else.
But when his wife and adult son called out the student preacher to offer him comfort and reassurance, Larry was dying. And it scared him to death. He knew that he’d done much to offend not just other people, but also God. Larry was deeply frightened by the prospect of having to give account to God for the things he’d done while in his body.
As Larry sat before me in his wheelchair, his hands and lips trembled. He told me he was scared to death that he was going to go to hell when he died. I talked to Larry about God’s amazing grace and unconditional love. I invited him to confess his sin to God and prayed with him that God would show him that God loved him. But I suspect that when Larry died shortly thereafter, he was still wondering if he was God’s adopted son.
I sense that for at least some 21st century Christians, thoughts and worries about God’s choice of us are fading into the background of our concerns. Yet where Jesus’ friends take seriously sin and grace, God’s sovereign choice may remain an issue. Some of Jesus’ friends remain unsure of whether God has chosen us for eternal life.
This uncertainty may provide an “on-ramp” to a proclamation of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In verse 4, after all, Paul says that “we know [eidotes]*, brothers loved [egapemenoi] by God, that he has chosen [eklogen] you.” The Thessalonian Christians to whom the apostles write aren’t, in other words, just chosen, or literally “selected” by God. Those apostles are also sure that God has chosen them. It is, as The Message paraphrases 1 Thessalonians 1:4, “clear to” to the Paul, Silas and Timothy who co-authored this letter.
Of course, this chosenness remains a concept whose complete understanding eludes Christian unity. God’s dearly beloved people recognize that God elected God’s Son Jesus Christ to rescue the world through his life, death and resurrection. We also profess that any election that we enjoy is because of Jesus’ saving work.
Yet Jesus’ friends struggle to know just when and why God chose God’s dearly beloved people. Preachers will want to proclaim the doctrine of God’s election of us through the lens of their tradition’s own understanding of it. But we always want to highlight its gracious nature. We belong to Christ not because we chose him, but because God in Christ graciously chose us.
Yet God’s beloved but flawed people still sometimes wonder if God has chosen us. Thankfully, then, Paul at least implies that God hasn’t just chosen us. God also offers us a number of signs of that election. Jesus’ friends aren’t just chosen by God. God also graciously confirms that choice in a number of ways.
In verse 4, Paul celebrates how Jesus’ followers know that God has chosen us “because [hoti] our gospel came to you not simply with words [logo monon], but also with power [dynamei], with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction [plerophoria].” Confirmation of the Thessalonian Christians’ election is found in the way the gospel’s great news impacted their whole persons. The Message paraphrases Paul as saying here, “The Holy Spirit put steel in” Thessalonica’s Christians “convictions.”
After all, after Paul, Silas and Timothy lived among them, the Thessalonians “became imitators [mimetai] of” the apostles “and the Lord” (6). “In spite of severe suffering [thlipsei pollei],” they “welcomed [dexamenoi] the message with the joy [charas] given by the Holy Spirit.”
Paul points out how the gospel empowered Thessalonica’s Christians to imitate both the apostles and their Lord. The great news of salvation through Jesus Christ also affected them by equipping them to receive it with joy in spite of the suffering that reception caused them.
As Paul continues in verse 7 and following, the apostles can express their confidence in God choice of the Thessalonian Christians because they “became a model [typon] to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out [exechetai] from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God became known [exelelythen] everywhere.”
So God’s gracious choice of Thessalonica’s Christians wasn’t just evident to Paul, Silas and Timothy. It also became obvious to God’s adopted children, not just in Macedonia and Achaia, but also “everywhere [en panti topo]” (9). In fact, those far-flung Christians even seemed to share with others the news of God’s election’s impact on the Thessalonians to whom Paul writes this letter.
In commenting on Paul’s description of the Thessalonians faith’s impact, the biblical scholar Beverly Gaventa notes that it says something about the apostle’s understanding of the gospel’s spread. Thessalonica’s Christians’ faithful reception of the gospel wasn’t a passive act. Gaventa writes, “Even the way in which they received the gospel had itself become a proclamation … The imitators become the imitated, the evangelized become the evangelists” (First and Second Thessalonians, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
In verses 9b-10 the apostle adds more evidence of God’s election of the Thessalonians: “They turned [epestrepsate] to God from idols to serve [douleuein] the living and true God.” They turned away from their misplaced worship of created things and toward the Creator of all things that have been created. Here, as Gaventa writes (ibid), Paul is “speaking the language of conversion.” He’s saying that Thessalonica’s Christians, as The Message paraphrases verse 9b, “deserted the dead idols of” their “old life so” they “could embrace and serve God, the true God.”
What’s more, Paul adds in verse 10, the Thessalonians now “wait for [anamenein] his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues [rhyomenon] us from the coming wrath [orges tes erchomedes].” Once the Thessalonians whom God chose turned toward the living God, they also began to faithfully turn “toward” the return of God’s Son. Because they’d come to realize that only Christ Jesus could rescue them from God’s final reckoning against evil, they faithfully awaited his second coming.
Yet Paul makes it very clear, as the biblical scholar Amy L.B. Peeler writes, that God is responsible for these evidences of the impact of the Thessalonians’ election on them. God deserves all the thanksgiving for this transformation. The work of the Triune God has both created and sustained Thessalonica’s Christians’ faith.
So yes, the Thessalonians have let the Spirit use the gospel’s proclamation to equip them for noteworthy faith. They have also done countless acts of generosity. But none of that would have been possible were it not for the mighty work of God that set those actions in motion.
Preachers might consider sharing some signs they’ve seen of God’s election of the people to whom we preach. We might offer concrete examples of the way the Spirit is bearing fruit in the lives of those whom God has graciously chosen for eternal life.
In doing so, however, preachers will want to avoid exclusively using “heroic” examples of the results of election. We also want to share more “ordinary” signs of election, as well as the signs offered by the kinds of people whom we easily overlook.
*I have here and elsewhere bracketed the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
The kind of imitation that Paul commends in 1 Thessalonians 1:6 has been called the “sincerest form of flattery.” But sometimes flattery can also be downright dangerous. In his book, The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories, Howard Liss writes about the golf trick-shot specialist Paul Hahn.
He could, writes Liss, “hit the ball two-hundred yards with a club head attached to a length of garden hose. [However], Hahn had one trick which caused some trouble. He used a beautiful girl; she lay flat on the ground with a golf ball neatly resting on her lips. Hahn swung and hit the ball without touching the girl. But,” Liss concludes, Hahn “soon had to give up showing that trick, when he found out that some youngsters were trying to copy the trick using their own girlfriends.”
A moral of the story: if you’re going to pattern your life or actions after someone, you’d better be very careful about who and what you choose to imitate.
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