Summary: Is the Gospel we preach, and the God we preach the same as Paul had preached to the Thessalonians in AD 49?
The first epistle to the Thessalonian, of which we just heard the first chapter, is the earliest of Paul’s writings. We read in Acts chapter 17 of his visit to Thessalonica (modern-day Salonika) in the year 49; of how he preached in the synagogue for two Sabbaths, but was then driven from the city after provoking a hostile reception. However in that short while God had been at work, and the Gospel Paul preached had taken firm root.
Paul himself, when he came to write to this fledgling church, probably in the year 50, acknowledges that fact. In verse 5 we read "our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction". And what a profound impact that Gospel had made! Wherever the true Gospel is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit it will make a radical transformation in the lives of those who hear and receive it. That is evidenced by what Paul writes in verse 8:
"The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere".
The result had been that these new converts, these new Christians had become effective evangelists- and such will always be the case. It hardly seems to be the case today. Why not?- one is tempted to ask! Is it that we do not echo the Gospel in our lives? We read of the church just after Pentecost that "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved". (Acts 2:47)
The fact is the Gospel is a radical Gospel. God’s wisdom in the Gospel is not the wisdom of the world (cf 1 Cor 1:25); it is not transmitted with the world’s techniques. I think we do well to stand back and survey what Paul says in the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians.
Firstly- What effect did the Gospel have in the direction of their lives?
In verse 9, we read: "you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God". This actually says something too about the Gospel which we do well to take note of. The focus of their lives; the focus of a Gospel-changed life is the ’living and true God’
As I read this I found myself asking- does today’s Gospel present us with this same God? This may seem like a shocking question, but it’s one I feel needs an honest answer. If you turn to what Paul wrote a few years later to the Ephesians, he begins chapter two with these words: "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient". (2:1-2), and then (vv 4-5) "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved". There are two elements here. In the first place the Gospel speaks of us being disobedient to God. We think (rightly) of ’sin’ as ’missing the mark’, but Scripture has several words, and here Paul used the word ’transgression’, which has to do with law-breaking. The one who is the true and living God has the right and authority to tell us how to live our lives. The way of the world is opposed to God’s rule, but when Jesus announced that ’the Kingdom of heaven is near’, he was in effect saying that ’God’s rule is near’ And the other part of this teaching is that disobeying God has consequences. It had consequences right from the beginning. Look if you will at what happened in Eden, where we read in Genesis chapter two that God told Adam and Eve And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die".(vv16-17) They disobeyed God’s command and were banished from the Garden. If the Gospel is truly preached it will include this matter of obedience to God- and we do not by nature like obeying!
The second element is that the Gospel teaches us to "turn from God to idols" (from anything which falsely takes first place in our lives) I want here to quote Lawrence Richards who picks up on this verse in his commentaries.
"Early Christian evangelists did not attack idolatry, but rather presented Jesus. Conversion was not turning from idols to God, but a turning to God from idols".