Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 5, 2023
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 Commentary
What we call “post-modernism” heavily influences 21st century Western culture. One characteristic of that worldview is a kind of moral relativism. In other words, the idea that most ideas are equally valuable profoundly shapes our culture. No “word” carries any more moral authority than another.
In a post-modern culture that offers a buffet of religious and philosophical options, Christianity is “on the menu.” But our culture insists that it has no more truth or value than say, Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam. As a result, it’s deeply suspicious of Christianity’s truth-claims.
Our text’s Thessalonians’ cultural context was similar to ours. Their neighbors, as Beverly Gaventa points out (First and Second Thessalonians, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY), worshiped a variety of gods. The Thessalonians also participated in the Roman imperial cult that worshiped Rome’s Caesar as at least a son of the gods, if not god himself. So most Thessalonians assumed that Christianity was just one religious option among many.
That helps make verse 13’s assertion about the Thessalonians so profoundly counter-cultural. The apostles report that they accepted [edexasthe] what they heard from them not as the word of people [logon anthropon], but as the “word of God [logon Theou].” Thessalonica’s Christians accepts what Eugene Peterson paraphrases as “God’s true word to” them.
God has and may sometimes still does speak to God’s beloved people through dreams and visions. Usually, however, God’s Word is mediated to Jesus’ friends through Jesus’ other friends. In other words, as the New Testament scholar Holly Hearon (“Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13,” Working Preacher, October 30, 2011), to whom I owe this message’s structure, notes, people generally proclaim God’s word.
We can even see that in the Greek word we translate as God’s “word” (logos). It, after all, refers to something that’s almost always spoken. So Paul, Silvanus and Timothy spoke the “word of God” about Jesus Christ to Thessalonica’s Christians. In fact, Hearon points out that while one person proclaims that word to another, that word always manifests itself within the context human culture and experience.
On the other hand, when Jesus’ followers proclaim the gospel, it’s not really our word, but God’s. After all, in verse 13 the apostles speak of how when the Thessalonians received God’s word from them, they accepted their message “as it actually is, the word of God.”
This verse’s sequence of verbs is instructive. When Paul speaks of how the Thessalonians received the word of God from the apostles, he uses the Greek verb that we translate as “received” [paralabontes]. It’s also sometimes translated as “learned from someone.” It conveys the sense of information that’s somehow learned.
But Paul says the Thessalonians didn’t just receive information about God. They also “accepted” [edexasthe] it. Thessalonica’s Christians also “took [the apostles’ message] to heart as God’s true word to them,” as The Message paraphrases verse 13. They didn’t, in Gaventa’s (ibid) words, just take it in. They also took “to” it.
Paul celebrates how the Thessalonian Church didn’t just receive the word of God from the apostles. It also “welcomed” it. In other words, Thessalonica’s Christians, writes Hearon, recognized that the words the apostles spoke to them described God’s character and work that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveals.
Jesus’ friends long for people not to just know more about our friend Jesus. We also want them to welcome God’s word by loving, serving and trusting Jesus Christ in life and in death. The Spirit then puts God’s word to work in those who take it to heart.
That makes God’s word radically different from the words that bombard us every day. We, in fact, live the middle of a blizzard of words. Countless Facebook posts, tweets, blogs, 24-hour news broadcasts and talk shows sometimes feel like they make our ears bleed. And yet the words we accept generally just prop our own our philosophies and preferences.
John Lennon once sang, “Words are flowing like endless rain into a paper cup. They slither as they pass, they slip away across the universe.” He unwittingly sings about one difference between human words we receive and God’s word that we, by God’s grace, welcome. While most words “slither as they pass and slip away across the universe,” God’s word is “at work in” God’s dearly beloved people.
God’s word, as my colleague Scott Hoezee writes, “is an energizing Word that activates all kinds of things inside of people who have” Christian faith. “The Holy Spirit uses God’s word to make a real and noticeable difference in the lives of those who welcome it.”
The Thessalonian Christians once welcomed the apostles into their midst. But opposition drove Paul, Silas and Timothy out of town. So no matter how active the apostles once were there, they were no longer able to work with them. Thankfully, then, God’s Spirit went to work in and on the members of the Thessalonian church. As Gaventa (ibid) writes, the apostles would continue to be important to them. But now it would be God who would by the Holy Spirit directly work in the Thessalonian Christians.
How could the Thessalonians who’d accepted God’s word know that word was at work in them? 1 Thessalonians demonstrates the impact God’s word at work made on both the apostles and the Thessalonian Christians. Paul, in fact, says that God’s word worked by putting the Thessalonians to work.
God’s word worked within members of Thessalonica’s church to produce their imitation of the Lord and the apostles as well as a joyful welcome of the gospel message. What’s more, God’s word worked within them to make them models of faith for their fellow Christians across their part of the world.
However, God’s word also worked a great work among the apostles who’d welcomed it. God’s word produced within them boldness to share the gospel in the face of repeated opposition and hostility to it, as well as a holy, righteous and blameless lifestyle among Thessalonica’s Christians. On top of that, God’s word worked within Paul, Silas and Timothy gentleness toward as well as a fatherly encouragement and comfort of them.
Yet as a colleague also notes, perhaps God’s word should come with a kind of warning label: “Beware! God’s work in and with you could be dangerous to your health. It can produce violent side effects like persecution.” In fact, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 contain Paul’s report of how the Thessalonians’ Jewish “countrymen” responded to their proclamation of the gospel.
They didn’t just kill Jesus and the prophets, as well as run Paul, Silas and Timothy out of town. Jesus’ followers’ enemies also offended God and people by trying to keep them from sharing how to be saved with people who’d never heard the gospel.
People who claimed to do God’s work for God by exterminating Jews – none of whom killed Jesus or the prophets, or ran the apostles out of town — used this Lesson’s words to light their pogroms and ovens. Jesus’ friends lament all acts of violence by people who claim to be Christians against people of other faiths. We condemn the religious harassment that our neighbors who are Jews continue to endure, sometimes at the hands of people who claim to follow Jesus.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
My friend Marv could talk to almost anyone about the Christian faith. His method? Marv always read the comics, financial pages and sports sections of newspapers. He, after all, reasoned most men were interested in at least one of those subjects. The Holy Spirit then used that interest as a bridge across which Marv could share the gospel.
Of course, for God’s adopted children’s words to be God’s word, they must always be deeply rooted in the Scriptures that proclaim that word. Marv knew the Scriptures even better than he knew our cultural context. He spent far more time reading and meditating on the Bible than his local Salt Lake Tribune.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!