We are looking the first letter to the Thessalonians which is teaching these Christians how to live their lives in the light of eternity. These are Christians who are experiencing suffering, as revealed from Acts 17 as well as from what we will read in this letter. Paul opened this letter by praising these Christians for their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. Our view of eternity is what bolsters faith, hope, and love in our lives in such a way that people can see those godly traits. Paul’s great concern is that Christians would lose faith, love, and hope because of the trials and sufferings they are facing for the Lord’s sake. We read Acts 17 last week to get a sense of the suffering they were enduring. I want us to look a little into this letter to see a little more of the suffering they are facing.
For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved…. (1 Thessalonians 2:14–16 ESV)
…we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. (1 Thessalonians 3:2–3 ESV)
We are able to get a further sense of these sufferings they are experiencing by living in Thessalonica. I want you to be impressed by the faith and obedience of these Christians in the face of the trials they are experiencing. Now let’s read 1 Thessalonians 1:4-8 and see how their view of eternity has motivated their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope.
Loved and Chosen By God (1:4-5)
Look at verse 4. “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you…” (1 Thessalonians 1:4 ESV). How much we need this reaffirmed in our hearts through suffering and difficulties! We know that we are loved by God and chosen by God. What more bolsters our work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope than the knowledge that God loves you and has chosen you? How amazing that we are chosen by God!
How did Paul know that these Christians were chosen by God? Paul continues to describe their reception of the gospel message. In verse 5 Paul declares that they came to Thessalonica proclaiming the word of God in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction. One of the main points Paul will address in these first two chapters is how these Thessalonians received the word of God when it was proclaimed. It matters what we think about the word of God and how we receive the proclamation of the gospel. We will spend many weeks considering how these Christians received God’s word so that we can model that response as well. Paul says that they came proclaiming the powerful message of God. That powerful message was not only that they were able to confirm their proclamation with miraculous spiritual gifts, but also that the word of God itself is powerful. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). Paul said that the word of the cross is foolishness to the perishing but it is the power of God to those who are being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18). The message of Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). We are chosen through the proclamation of the gospel. Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Jesus taught in John 6:43-47 that we are drawn by the Father to Christ through the proclaimed word for “They will all be taught by God” (John 6:45). You know you are chosen by God because of your response to the gospel message.
Received the Word With Joy Even In Affliction (1:6-7)
How did the Thessalonians respond to the gospel message so that Paul has confidence in their faith? Listen to verses 6-7.
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. (1 Thessalonians 1:6–7 ESV)
Paul says that these Christians became imitators of Paul and Silas, as well as imitators of our Lord Jesus. How did they imitate Paul, Silas, the apostles, and Jesus himself? Look carefully at verse 6. “You received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
What was the point of imitation? They maintained joy in the Lord (Holy Spirit) in the midst of their trials and suffering. I want you to listen to that response and think about it. In the midst of much affliction they received the message of the gospel of Jesus with joy. We look at affliction and suffering as a justified reason to not respond to the word of God. We are tempted to think that our suffering excuses us from God’s call to follow him and serve him. We think that we are allowed a temporary pass while going through hardships. Notice that these Christians’ responses showed that they were chosen by God. They received the word of God with joy even though they were in great affliction, suffering, and loss.
You see that we are NOT called to be happy and comfortable in this life. We think this way when we stop thinking about eternity as our goal. When we think about this life as the destination then we make the goal our own personal happiness and comfort. This is when people errantly say, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” We are making this life the goal. We are making this life the destination. But God does not want you to make this life the destination. In fact, suffering is what keeps us from making this life the destination. Our pain and our loss remind us that this world cannot be the goal of life. Listen to the example Jesus gave us.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21 ESV)
So how did Jesus have joy even though he was crucified? How could he have joy through pain and suffering? Listen to the writer of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2 ESV)
What was the focus of Jesus? “For the joy that was set before him endured the cross….” There was a joy set before him and that is why he could endure the cross and disregard the shame. This is how we endure suffering. Human joy does not last through suffering. Happiness does not work in pain and anguish. But truly receiving the word of God brings joy through suffering because you can have your eyes firmly fixed on eternity. This is how Jesus suffered for the joy set before him. This is how the apostles could be beaten by the authorities and rejoice (Acts 5:41). Suffering does not make us run from God, but run to God. Pain, distress, and loss causes me to all the more cling to the Savior because the next life is all we have. We cannot have heaven here and our sorrows move us to the permanent and eternal joy that is set before us.
What the Thessalonians did in drawing closer to God in their afflictions is the example for what all Christians are supposed to do. Look at verse 7. They became an example to all the believers in two provinces in the Roman Empire. Their suffering was not an excuse to slip in their devotion and service to God. Their suffering did not take away their joy to continue in their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. What the Thessalonians did was not supposed to be an anomaly. Rather, this is the example given to all Christians. The word translated “example” is a work that used in the Greek to refer to a mark left by a hammer, leaving an impression on the original. It is an impress. It is a model of the original. Joyous affliction provides a model of faith for others.
A Christ-like reaction to trials is a powerful factor to influence others to stay faithful to the Lord. Your strength in the Lord in the midst of suffering encourages others to remain faithful and strong in the Lord through their trials and suffering. In fact, notice what Paul says in verse 8.
Resounding Faith (1:8)
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, so that we need not say anything. (1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV)
We need to see the power of the faithfulness of these Christians. Because they received the word with joy in such deep affliction, their faith in God had gone forth everywhere. Notice this in verse 8. Not only was the word of the Lord sounding forth from their lips, but their lives exemplified this message. People will hear of your steadfastness in the faith and will listen to the message you proclaim. Too often we see evangelism as one or the other. Sometimes we speak about lifestyle evangelism. But no one can be taught without words. They may see your example but will not know why you live your life the way you do. On the other side, we can tell people about Christ but if our lives do not reflect what we are teaching, the message is made void. Listen to what Paul is saying about the Thessalonians. The word of the Lord has sounded forth from them and their faith in God has gone forth everywhere.
Faithfulness in affliction is powerful. But do you know what is more powerful? Faithfulness in affliction with joy is more powerful. This is the testimony of God’s people throughout history. Listen to what the writer of Hebrews said about the Christians he was writing to.
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. (Hebrews 10:32–36 ESV)
Where did their joy in affliction come from? They knew that they had a better possession and an abiding one. It caused them to have compassion on others. This knowledge promoted their faith. This strengthened their hope and deepened their love. Keeping eternity in view changes our faithfulness in the midst of suffering. Keeping eternity in view brings joy through our painful life circumstances.
Let’s be Christians who help each other through their faithfulness and joy in God’s word in the midst of great trials. Let’s be Christians who draw people to the Lord through the proclamation of the gospel and joy in suffering. Followers of Jesus will suffer. But how will you respond in difficulty? What will you do in the time of trial? The question from the book of Job rings loudly in our lives: Do you serve God for nothing? Or do we serve God for what we get rather than who he is? Eternity helps us keep our eyes on the prize of knowing God and being with him eternal. That our goal and we reach forward for it with joy.