The letter to the Thessalonians has opened with a beautiful picture of how to receive the gospel in the face of trials and suffering. Paul and Silas are thankful for the work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope that has been displayed by these Christians, even though they are suffering much affliction by the hands of their own people in the city. Paul’s encouragement to these Christians has been grounded on the hope of eternity. We noted at the start of this series that every chapter in this letter refers to the second coming of Christ and what we will enjoy at his return. These Christians have been imitators of Paul and the Lord by receiving the word of God with joy even in the face of great affliction. Thus, their faith has sounded forth everywhere, becoming an example to all believers in the surrounding regions. In the rest of this paragraph we are going to notice how else our view of eternity is to change how we live in this life.
Changed Desires (1:9)
For 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…. (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV)
The picture we see that was reported throughout Macedonia and Achaia was how these Thessalonians had turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. I want us to consider that this is the picture of true repentance. This is the picture of true conversion. This is what clothing ourselves in Christ looks like. Turning to God from idols is what we must do because we have heard the good news of Jesus.
Now it is easy for us to think about idolatry in the first century and think that this is not a problem in our day and time. We consider people in ancient Near Eastern times as silly for having golden calves and statues of stone or metal. But we need to define what an idol is. An idol is anything that has a controlling position in our hearts that we can spend most of our passion, energy, and resources without a second thought. An idol is whatever we trust in or serve. When we understand the truth about idols we recognize that the physical statue of stone or metal was just a representation of the desire the person was following after. Idols are not merely objects but are ideas and concepts. For example, our greatest idol that we encounter in our hearts today is the idol of comfort. We believe we should be able to do whatever we want and like. We should be able to do what makes us comfortable. We should do what makes us happy. This is the idol of comfort. I should not have to be uncomfortable and if something makes me uncomfortable, then I get rid of that in my life. If I am uncomfortable and unhappy with my spouse, I get a divorce. If I am uncomfortable and unhappy with God and his law, I go to a new church that tells me what I want to hear or I give up on God altogether. This is how we see an idol in our hearts. We reorder our lives to fulfill the desires of that idol.
This is why the gospel was not favorably received in many cities like Ephesus and Thessalonica. The gospel called for people in the Greek and Roman cultures to abandon their religious loyalties, practices, and beliefs to serve the true and living God. Turning to God is what repentance is. Repentance means abandoning idols and the immoral practices associated with them. When Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra, the people initially thought they were Greek gods because they healed a lame. Listen to what Paul and Barnabas preached to the people in that moment.
“Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” (Acts 14:15 ESV)
What is the message of the gospel? The message is the turn from these vain things (idolatry) to a living God. But the Jews from Antioch and Iconium come to the city and turn the crowd against Paul such that Paul dragged out of the city and stoned. People do not want to hear a message of turning from idols. People do not want to hear that they have to change their lives away from the idols in their lives. But this is the call of the gospel. Repentance is calling the things that we are pursuing in this life to be vain things. They are futile and empty. They are not worthy of our time when we consider the pursuit and the service of God. John Calvin said, “Only those who renounce the worthlessness of their own instincts and embrace and receive the pure worship of God truly believes in him.” The point is that there is no belief without repentance. Serving God is the turning away from our desires and will and submitting to God’s will. So how do we make this change? What made these Thessalonians show true repentance and true conversion by receiving the word of God with joy in the midst of affliction and turning to God from idols? Listen to the rest of what Paul says about their perspective.
Waiting For His Son (1:10)
What is the perspective of these Christians? What is the perspective that we are called to have? Paul says we are “waiting for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” They were looking for the return of Jesus. Christians view their present circumstances in the light of eternal promises. The people of faith did this. Listen to the faith of Moses.
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24–26 ESV)
Why did Moses renounce his privileges and choose to be mistreated with God’s people? Why did he not choose to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin? He was looking to the reward. He considered abuse for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt. How? Because he was looking to the reward. His eyes were upward. When others are looking around in confusion, we look up with anticipation. We turn from idols, from the vain things of this world, and from the fleeting pleasures of sin by desiring something better. This is the only way this change of our desires happens. We must desire something better. Listen to the psalmist in Psalm 84.
Better a day in your courts than a thousand anywhere else. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than live in the tents of wicked people. (Psalm 84:10 CSB)
That is the change of desire that has to happen. Joy in affliction, turning from our idols, and rejecting the pleasures of sin will only come when we look to eternity and see that it is better with God for one day that it is for a thousand years anywhere else. We want to wait for his Son.
We are not good at waiting. A microwave takes too long. A fast food drive through takes too long. We are not about waiting. There is not much that we are willing to wait for. But if it is worth it, then we will wait. People will stand hours in line to ride an amusement park ride, a ride which lasts about two minutes or less. We will wait for valuable things. A young woman will wait quite some time for a young man to propose to her. We do not like to wait but we will wait for things that are important and valuable. Christians are called to wait for Christ’s coming. We wait for his arrival. We are waiting for him to come from heaven. We must wait for his coming. We are not promised that he would come soon with his second coming. All of God’s promises required waiting. Abraham had to wait for the fulfillment of the promises made to him, which were not fulfilled until long after he died. The same is true for Isaac and Jacob. Even the promises regarding the nation of Israel and the hope God gave to it were long outside the lifetimes of those who proclaimed those promises and those who heard those promises.
Two thousand years have passed by. Many have misinterpreted scriptures where the promise is about Jesus coming soon to refer to the end times. But that is not an accurate picture. The promise given is to wait. We are waiting for him to return. This is our life perspective. Everything we do in this life is in anticipation of his arrival. We cannot allow time to shake our faith. God said that we would be waiting. But God keeps his promises and he will return. But in the meantime we must wait.
Please notice why waiting is worth it. Look at the end of verse 10. We wait for Jesus because he “delivers us from the wrath to come.” We are willing to wait because he is coming to our rescue. We need to soak in this reality: there is a wrath to come. Our culture and most of the modern world has rejected the idea that there is a coming judgment. We do not accept it and we do not want to talk about it or think about it. But Paul speaks of this outcome with certainty. There is a wrath to come. Jesus is coming to rescue us from that coming wrath. This is why we renounce idols. This is why we rejecting the fleeting pleasures of sin. This is why receive the word of God with joy and serve God in the face of afflictions. We are delivered from the wrath to come.
The perspective of eternity changes how we live this life. We are willing to wait a long time and deal with a lot of suffering and afflictions when we remember that we are waiting for Jesus to rescue us from eternal punishment and wrath. Our faith will be vindicated. Our endurance will be rewarded. We will wait because we have our eyes upward. We know that we are waiting for his arrival. We know his coming is the rescue that we need. We will turn from idols so that we become part of God’s true family and enjoy the blessings that come from that relationship. There is a wrath to come.
Notice then that there are three actions that we see in these Christians that they were doing because of their perspective of eternity: turn, serve, and wait. Turn from your idols and vain things in this life, serve the true and living God, and wait for Jesus to come from heaven. Turn, serve, and wait. Keep these three things in your mind this week. Turn, serve, and wait. We are turning from sin. We are serving God. We are waiting for Jesus. Turn, serve, and wait.
Please consider what are in the idols in your life. What controls your decisions? What controls your desires? What do you give your energy, efforts, and resources toward? Turn from those things so that God controls your decisions, desires, and receives your energy, efforts, and resources. Turn and serve the Lord so that you will be delivered from the wrath to come. Wait for his coming. The wait is worth it. He is coming. He will return and we have hope of true life if we will turn, serve, and wait.