by Dr. Ryan Noel Fraser, author of Overcoming the Blues: Finding Christ-Centered Hope and Joy…
By Philipp Meinecke
Jesus used many compelling and vivid metaphors to describe the Church and its intended influence and function in the world:
- A city set on a hill. Visible event to the untrained eye.
- A lamp bringing light even into the darkest of rooms.
- A beautiful bride made ready for her husband.
- A house, in which those far and near find a home.
- Salt to season and preserve.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the early Church presented such a transformative force on its culture that even persecution could not stop it, hinder it, or keep it from changing culture.
In Christ’s view, the purpose and function of the church was to be the primary agent to advance God’s kingdom here on earth. He would build it, he would cause it to grow, he would look after it, and he would see to its success. What’s more, he said that “even the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt.16:18). Jesus understood the Church’s function to be an active instrument used in an offensive manner (as opposed to defensive) and which has been purposefully and strategically aimed at Satan’s kingdom, thereby placing his kingdom on the defensive.
Yet today, instead of turning the world upside-down, we’ve largely turned the bright-shining light off (or exchanged it with flashy lights inside our buildings). Increasingly, people in the West tend to like Jesus, but not his Church.[i] While we want them to identify with Jesus, we cannot neglect the instrument by which he sought to change the world. With few exceptions far and between, the voice and influence of the Church on its surrounding culture has all but gone. Personal compromise has lead to large-scale compromise and, in many instances, has led to a moral and ethical sell-out following doctrinal compromise.[ii] Instead of changing culture, culture has invaded the Church of the West.
Listen to this quote by Marvin Rosenthal:
“Many who name the name of Christ want the Church to provide entertainment, not worship. They want the Church to provide a hedged-in, antiseptic, country-club atmosphere, not a ‘go-out-into-the-highways-and-hedges-and-compel-them-to-come-in philosophy. Apart from some notable exceptions, at the present hour the Church is splintered, polarized, carnal, materialistic, humanistic, and impotent. The world is burning, and the Church is fiddling.”[iii]
You see, God has carefully designed and positioned his church to be the transforming agent of our culture, not because of its leadership, not because of its programs, not because of its members, but because of the Gospel message faithfully handed down from one generation to the next. After all, it is the Gospel that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16).
But here’s the key point: If the Gospel of Grace has been compromised, the church has lost its influence.
So the question that we want to answer is this: what are the marks of a church of irresistible influence? What I mean by that is a church whose presence is so unmistakable, where lives have been so transformed by the Gospel that people not only take notice but want in! Is there a precedent or a formula that will paint a picture of what this should look like for our church – and if the whole consists of its parts, then how does this message pertain to every one of us today?
1 Paul and Silvanus and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; 3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope]in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, 4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; 5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. 9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.
~ 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, NASB[iv]
Against the backdrop of the Jerusalem Council of around 50 AD, at which the Gospel of grace has been defended against by the attacks of the Judaizers, the apostle Paul writes several letters, two of which are very important to note:
- On the one hand, you have the letter to the Galatians – it is a warning against compromising the Gospel of grace
- On the other hand, you have the first letter to the Thessalonians – it is a letter of commendation of participating in the uncompromised Gospel of grace.
Both letters stress the importance of the Gospel of grace to the believer.
Today we want to look at what it looks like when a church participates uncompromisingly in the Gospel and, thereby, extends its influence on culture. If we are not careful and we lose the fight, the Gospel is compromised and the church loses its influence. So what can we learn from the Thessalonians that mark a church of irresistible influence?
Here’s the first:
- They have a proper focus (vv. 2-3,10).
In vv.2-3, Paul shares with the Thessalonians about how thankful he is for their development as believers since the Gospel first came to them. Note how careful he is to pen down the process: it starts with God’s sovereign choice, then the Gospel was conveyed to them through messengers who imparted their lives and shared God’s Word. Then there were visible results: our text says that he constantly bears in mind three things about them as he prays for them:
- He bears in mind their work of faith – literally, it means that it is work which springs from faith. They didn’t just nod their heads and acknowledge certain truths. They believed the Gospel and acted upon it, and the fruit of their lives gave evidence to their faith. It is work – or fruit – that springs from faith.
- He bears in mind their labor of love – literally, it means that it is labor which springs from love. The Thessalonians didn’t shrink back from laborious work for others, as long as it was rooted, enabled, and directed by the same self-less love that Christ expressed when dying on the cross. That kind of love is sacrificial, it’s costly, it’s messy, it’s uncomfortable at times, but it’s an opportunity at every corner to die to self and allow God’s love to minister through you.
- He bears in mind their steadfastness of hope – literally, it means that it is steadfastness which springs from hope. It describes one’s ability to patiently endure toil, hardship, and even persecution because of one’s hope in something better. The Thessalonians placed their faith, and their hope in Christ according to verse 3 and they oriented their lives in light of Christ’s imminent return.
Their focus was fixed completely on Christ. They knew who they were because they knew whose they were and they lived out of the overflow of their new-found identity in Christ and God worked through them.
The first mark of a church of irresistible influence is that there needs to be a proper focus. This text has the Christ-life written all over it: that is, Christ living his life in and through you, much like the vine and the branches. It is understanding that everything God desires to do in and through your life, he will accomplish out of the overflow of your relationship with him. This is exactly what the Thessalonians lived out.
But here’s the danger: knowing that this is to be the sole pursuit in life is one thing, keeping it there is quite another. If we steer away from the essence of the Gospel by one inch, which is what the Galatians were in danger of doing, you lose your influence.
Why? Because your object of faith – your focus – becomes Christ plus something else, or worse: something else minus Christ. When that happens, religion comes knocking at the back door and you find yourself serving others begrudgingly out of religious duty and not out of a love-relationship with Christ; endurance becomes optional – or a foreign concept altogether – when things get tough. The Gospel message has been corrupted and you’ll have lost your influence. You have got to have a proper focus. If the whole consists of its parts, this pertains to you and me.
What else can we learn from the Thessalonians that marks a church of irresistible influence?
- They follow proper examples (vv.6-8)
Our text says that the Thessalonians, upon receiving the Gospel, became imitators of Paul and of Christ. The order of the events is absolutely important here:
- They heard the Gospel
- They received and acted upon the Gospel
- Their lives were changed by the Gospel
- They patterned their lives after those who presented and lived out the Gospel
Paul spent three years in Corinth, but only three weeks in Thessalonica (c.f. Acts 17:2). It wasn’t the length of time spent with each of these churches that made the difference, but what God was doing through Paul while he was with them (interesting principle to note for church planters, by the way). Paul had three weeks to teach them everything they needed to know in order to grow and mature as believers (plus constituting a church, raise up leadership, safeguard sound doctrine, etc.). Just how much can you teach? What do you focus on? It was a cooperation with the Holy Spirit, no doubt (1 Thess.1:5), but our text in 1 Thessalonians and the background passage in Acts 17 tell us that there was “reasoning … from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2), there was “explaining and giving evidence” (Acts 17:3), there was an impartation of the Gospel (Acts 17:3, 1 Thess. 1:5,6,8). Additionally, Paul and his companions provided an example (in word and deed) as to what it looked like to follow Christ (1 Thess.5-6).
The apostle Paul repeatedly encouraged this following of examples throughout his letters:
- 1 Corinthians 4:16: Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.
- Galatians 4:16: I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong;
- Philippians 3:17 Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.
- Philippians 4:9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
- Ephesians 5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children;
Paul had no qualms when presenting himself as an example to be copied, because he had patterned his life after Christ. He said in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” In other words, I am following Christ and I am patterning my life after his; if you want to know what it looks like to follow Christ, look no further – I am exhibit A of what that looks like. Therefore, as I imitate Christ, follow my example.
Paul imparted his life to others, and he faithfully kept the Gospel front and center in every circumstance and proclaimed it whenever he had opportunity.
Within the context of our passage, the Thessalonians became imitators of Paul and Christ in the areas of holiness, love, and suffering. All three go back to their focus, which was Christ.
What was the result? Look in vv.7-8. “They became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia … and their faith in God has sounded forth in every place, so that Paul and his companions didn’t have a need to say anything.”
I love how one commentator explains the terminology Paul uses here:
“the term “sound forth” is like the ringing out of a brass instrument that keeps on sounding. The figure is that of an echo that continues indefinitely and implies the persistence of the testimony over an ever-increasing expanse.”[v]
Being an example doesn’t start with a mass movement, rather, it begins with one individual stepping out of the mire of mediocrity and complacency up to the plate of responsibility and leadership. One such example is the February 3, 1970 Asbury College Revival in Wilmore, KY, which started with one student giving his testimony.[vi] Now, if the whole is comprised of its parts, your part, my part in this matters.
Let’s make this really personal for a moment:
- Since you responded to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, has your life changed so that you are now an example to others?
- Who are you imitating that is following Christ closely?
- Is the Word of God now sounding forth from you to other people wherever you go?
- Are you living a life in such a way that others are aware that you serve the living and true God? Or, as we will see in a couple of moments, haven’t you utterly destroyed the “idols” you once served as the Thessalonians did by turning to God to serve him and him only?
If the Gospel of grace has been compromised, the church has lost its influence. And if the whole is comprised of its individual parts, these are questions you and I need to answer honestly.
What else can we learn from the Thessalonians that marks a church of irresistible influence?
- They proclaim a proper message (v.9)
If the focus is completely on Christ and if the Gospel has been handed down faithfully and if people follow others who have patterned their lives after Christ, then there is assurance of the proper message being proclaimed both in word and in conduct, which has an effect on those within the church and those without.
Look with me in verses 9-10: “for they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
Notice who is doing the reporting: it’s the believers in Macedonia and Achaia and, if you want to take it further contextually, whomever the “sound waves” of the word of the Lord and the faith of the Thessalonians have reached – it is they who report about Paul and his companions the results of what their sharing of the Gospel in Thessalonica produced.
The Thessalonians heard the Gospel, received it, and it had an immediate and visible effect on their lives. As best as we can surmise from Scripture, this is the Gospel message they believed, received, and acted upon:
- You and I were created for relationship with God
- Our sin separated us from that relationship
- There is nothing that we can do to reconcile this relationship on our own.
- Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty of our sin.
- Jesus rose from the dead that we might have life.
- Jesus givers eternal life (or a reconciled relationship) to those who will repent of their sin by placing faith in Jesus Christ.
Our text says that when they heard the Gospel, they received it; they repented by placing faith in Christ as is seen by them turning to God from idols, they understood and believed that God raised Christ from the dead and that he offers a reconciled relationship – or salvation from the wrath to come. And they lived with a sense of expectancy and urgency in light of Christ’s imminent return from heaven.
Their lives backed up their words and word got out quick – first to the unbelievers in Thessalonica (Acts 17), then into the surrounding regions and beyond. The Gospel was not compromised – it was safeguarded at the council of Jerusalem and carefully placed in the hands of the Thessalonians. The result: they became a church of irresistible influence.
I want to leave you with three questions to wrestle with:
- Where is your focus? Is it completely on Christ or has it been mixed/muddled with something else?
- If others were to imitate your life, would the result be for their good and God’s glory?
- What message do you proclaim in word and in your conduct?
I have come across a quote of a man that captures the spirit of the Thessalonians. He is a personal hero of mine who was invested in by a Sunday school teacher (remember, it doesn’t start with a mass movement, but with one individual). Later in his life, this young man was challenged with the following statement: “the world has yet to see what God can do with a man, completely consecrated to Him.” His response was: “by God’s grace, I’ll be that man.” And thus a fire to proclaim and live out the Gospel was started in D.L. Moody, one of the greatest revivalists in the 19th century.
Here’s what he said:
“I desire to burn for God in order that through the faint glow of my life others struggling and staggering in sin may see the Star of Bethlehem brightly glowing and, following its radiant rays, come to anchor in the heavenly haven. Anything that dims my vision for Christ, weakens my prayer life, hinders my study of the eternal Word, or takes the joy out of my soul-winning is wrong and must not have any place in my schedule.”
May we catch the spark and individually be the church of irresistible influence!
[i] For further study, read the Barna article Meet Those Who “Love Jesus But Not The Church” (Research Release in Faith & Christianity, March 30, 2017: https://www.barna.com/research/meet-love-jesus-not-church/ accessed on 09-15-2017)
[ii] See for instance the Lutheran Church participating in the 2017 Christopher Street Day parades in Berlin and Stuttgart Evangelische Kirche beim Christopher Street Day in Berlin und Stuttgart (pro Christliches Medienmagazin, October 7, 2017: https://www.pro-medienmagazin.de/gesellschaft/kirche/2017/07/10/evangelische-kirche-beim-christopher-street-day-in-berlin-und-stuttgart/ accessed on 09-15-2017)
[iii] Rosenthal, Marvin The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990), p. 282.
[v] See commentary found online at bibleaids.org: http://bibleaids.org/com/ebc/nt/1the/1th16.html, accessed on 09-15-2017. Similar insights can be gleaned from William Hendriksen and Simon Kistemaker’s New Testament Commentary: Thessalonians, The Pastorals, and Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), p.53: “They <the Thessalonians> are here compared to a parabolic arch or a sounding-board which re-inforces sounds and causes them to travel in carious directions. The arch or the sounding-board does not itself create the sounds. It occupies a middle position, receiving them, re-inforcing them, and sending them on. Thus also the word of the Lord, having been received by those people in Thessalonica who are here addressed, had been reinforced by their own joyful experience in accepting it, and, thus strengthened, had been echoed forth…”