Summary: The apostle Paul compliments the believers at Thessalonica as model Christians and explains how it came about.
TURN, SERVE AND WAIT
If the Apostle Paul had made an award for the best church in Greece it could well have been to the church at Thessalonica. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters to the young churches he often began by sounding a note of thanksgiving for them. He knew his psychology. Even if he had to write some critical comments later, he first focussed on their good points. This is especially true of his letter to the Thessalonian church. Paul pays them a handsome compliment of their being imitators of the apostles and, best of all, of the Lord Jesus himself. The result was that they became an example, he said, "a model to all the believers" in the region.
An imitator of Christ and a model to all the believers - that’s the kind of accolade I would want to receive. Well, how did this come about? This is something worth exploring. Paul tells us his formula: "You turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven" (1 Thess 1: 9, 10). This is very much a preacher’s text: it falls naturally into three convenient sections. First: "You turned to God from idols"; next: "to serve the living and true God"; and finally: "to wait for his Son from heaven". Let’s look at the first part:
"YOU TURNED TO GOD FROM IDOLS"
Here we see two extremities: "idols” and "the living and true God" - they are poles apart. Idols are dead; God is living. Idols are false; God is true. Idols are many; God is one. Idols are visible and can be seen and felt; God is invisible, beyond the reach of sight and touch. Idols are creatures, the work of human hands; God is the creator of the universe and of all humankind.
Paul wasn’t being theoretical; he knew what he was talking about from practical experience. Early in his ministry he had come face to face with heathen idolatry in a bizarre incident at Lystra. He had been preaching in the open air. One of his hearers was a cripple - in fact had been so from birth. Paul was speaking of the almighty God who raised Christ from the dead when he noticed that the cripple was listening intently to what he was saying. He knew without doubt that the man had faith to be healed, not only in spirit but in body as well, in the same way that Jesus had told a cripple in Galilee to take up his bed and walk. Paul did the same. "Stand up and walk" he commanded. Instantly the man leaped up and walked. The effect on the crowd was electric. They began to jabber away in their own language and someone ran to the temple to fetch the priest of Zeus. They thought the gods had come to visit them, being convinced at the sight of the crippled man, now completely healed.
The heathen priests were about to sacrifice animals in front of Paul and Barnabas when it dawned on them, to their horror, that they had been mistaken for heathen gods and that sacrifice was about to be offered to win their favour. The evangelists tore their clothes and implored the priests to stop: "We’re only humans, like you. The good news we bring, the gospel, is that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made heaven and earth". He told them that the true and living God was the God they should be looking to, the God who had revealed himself in nature and in the provision of life’s needs.
What a contrast - idols and the living and true God. And yet how powerful are these idols. Missionaries tell us of the power that idols have over primitive peoples. A tribe’s traditional idols have a tremendous hold over people’s minds, hearts and lives. They live in dread of offending the spirits that lurk behind the visible form of the idol. They are bound by superstition and they are filled with alarm at the thought that the spirit will take revenge on them. But not only the primitive heathen, the modern sophisticated person is affected as well.
Let me offer an example: I was parking my car at the office. The car was new and shining and a lady came and said, "I like your car but I couldn’t possibly drive it!" "Why not?" I asked. "Well," she said, "in the first place it’s green and the registration number adds up to 13! Both bring bad luck." How sad! No, we can’t dismiss the idea of idols as something primitive, something that we in the modern age have left behind. Paul was writing to a church largely made up of Gentile believers but living in a community saturated in idolatry. Let’s stop to think as to what is an idol. An idol is really a God-substitute, something which has taken the place of the true and living God. That puts a different complexion on it. Let’s see if we can recognize idols in the modern scene.