|Theology / Church
Stuart Coulton is the Principal of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC). He was key-note speaker at the Interserve Encounters Conference in New South Wales in July 2014. This is an extract of his address.
Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica reveals both the fruit of gospel mission – the community of God’s people, the Church; and also the joy of gospel mission – the community of God’s people, the Church!
In 1 Thessalonians 1:3 Paul picks up a common theme: faith, love and hope. “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” John Calvin called this “a brief definition of true Christianity”.
Firstly, the Thessalonians had faith which produced work. It was by God’s grace that they were saved – through faith. But genuine faith produces genuine good works that adorn the gospel.
Secondly, they had love which produced labour. The difference between work and labour is more rhetorical than substantial; however, labour here carries with it the idea of weariness, an exhaustion that flows from hard and unceasing labour. That is helpful; the labour produced by love wears itself out for others.
We don’t know what that actually looked like in the Thessalonian context but there was something conspicuous about their love because news of it spread throughout the region. Whether it was forgiving those who wronged them; treating women with respect in a society that generally did not; caring for the poor; making themselves servants of others; replacing anger with gentleness, malice with kindness and greed with generosity – the opportunities for love were everywhere.
Thirdly, they had hope. Every chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church draws to a close with Paul speaking of the return of Jesus (1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:17, 5:23). Our Christian hope is not incidental to our faith. Our hope produces endurance that endures hardship and persecution for the sake of an eternal crown.
How did this all happen?
The gospel was preached to them (1:5). It is the gospel that motivates and shapes all Christian behaviour. Our future pastors and church planters, church workers and cross-cultural missionaries, those we send out to overseas mission field and we ourselves must be men and women who are Christ centred, gospel centred.
The Holy Spirit came with power (1:5). John Stott said:
We must never divorce what God has married.
The Word of God is the Spirit’s sword.
The Spirit without the Word is weaponless;
The Word without the Spirit is powerless.
FRUIT: the result of Spirit-anointed gospel ministry
The Thessalonian community turned from their worship of idols to serve the living true God! (1:9). A fundamental reorientation occurred that changed forever the direction and character of their lives.
They became imitators of Christ (1:6). What a stunning evidence of faith in Jesus! Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control, goodness, kindness, faithfulness. People who had led self-centred lives, lives that ignored even rebelled against God, were now living lives that yielded the fruit of the Spirit.
They became a model to others (1:7–8). Like the sound of a trumpet or the roll of thunder that reverberates through the mountains in an echo, so the model of faith set by the Thessalonians as they imitated (mimicked) the Lord Jesus reverberated everywhere!
When the north-African city of Alexandria was stricken with plague in the middle of the 3rd century, Dionysius a Christian bishop wrote that:
Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick…drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead … The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner … The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease they pushed the sufferers away and fled … treating unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease… (HE 7; 22:10)
Even the 4th century non-Christian Roman Emperor Julian complained that Christians cared not only for their own poor but for the unbelieving poor also: a community of God’s people, born out of gospel preaching by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
JOY: Paul rejoices in the church
It is this community of God’s people, the church, which is the source and focus of Paul’s joy. In the New Testament the Church is spoken of as the body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, sheep for whom the shepherd lays down his life, God’s own family, His adoptive sons and daughters. God’s affection for His people, His love for the church is everywhere in the Scriptures. And Paul shares something of that affection. Notice the language he uses:
In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul uses the imagery of both mother (vs 7) and father (vs 11–12) to speak of his relationship with the believers in Thessalonica. He writes that, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (2:8).
Later in chapter 2 Paul speaks of being torn away and of his intense longing (2:17) for the community of believers, and describes the church as “our hope, our joy … the crown in which we will glory …” (2:19).
It is the language of love! And it is the church that Paul is speaking of. Is that how you feel about the community of God’s people, formed out of the preaching of the gospel and by the power of the Spirit?
So what is the reason for Paul’s joy? Paul sees the church not from a human point of view but from God’s point of view. His perspective is an eternal, heavenly one rather than a temporary and earthly view.
PRAYER: the fruit of joy
Finally, what is the fruit of joy? In 2:17–3:8 Paul has been describing the deep-hearted affection he has for the church, his fears for their well-being when persecution forced him and his companions to leave at short notice, and his perspective on the church as a work that will last into eternity.
In 3:9–13, Paul prays! The fruit of our joy in the community of God’s people is prayer (3:9). Notice the substance of his prayers:
• the opportunity to visit and supply what is lacking in their faith (vs 10–11)
• increased love for one another such that it breaks the banks and overflows to deluge everyone (vs 12)
• strength to be holy and blameless as they wait for the return of Jesus (vs 13).
These are big pastoral prayers that will have an eternal impact. Paul’s prayer is a reminder that it is our work as Christian men and women to pray.
JI Packer says, “… prayer is the measure of the man, spiritually, in a way that nothing else is, so that how we pray is as important a question as we can ever face”.