In studying and preaching through the book of 1 Thessalonians, it quickly became apparent that I was face-to-face with one of the greats. Paul showered this church with honor and affirmation; the first 3 chapters alone are dedicated to thanksgiving and prayer for them. He praised the Thessalonians effectiveness and positive influence in early Christendom and even highlights their example as a local church body (1 Thess. 1:6).
What made this church so worthy of being followed as a standard in ministry? What qualified them to be set apart as a timeless model for the people of God as they seek to do the work of God? John Stott provides an answer when he notes that in this letter, Paul is providing a portrait of “how the gospel shapes the church, as the church seeks to live a life that is worthy of the gospel.”1
Finding a model church is often hard because we focus on the wrong things, or maybe lesser things. Our concerns and observations, though well-intentioned, tend to be on the method and function of the organization rather than the foundation and core of the organism. A closer look at the Thessalonian church is thus needful in order to evaluate one of the greatest examples of a local church and hopefully assess our own ministries in an effort to be like one of the best.
There are 4 distinctive features of a gospel-shaped and gospel-honoring church, as seen in Thessalonica:
1. An Expressive Church
The Thessalonians were consistent in living out, expressing the spiritual virtues granted to them in Christ. Paul’s commendation of this church as he remembered them was centered around their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:2-3).
Every spiritual reality in Christ has a tangible manifestation in the church, and a church expressing this manifestation is a sure sign that their devotion to the Lord is strong. Put even more simply: faith works, love labors on, and hope endures through all. Faith evidences itself through a diligent and careful obedience of the truth (Rom. 16:26). Love that expresses itself in word and not in action is merely flattery, broken promises, selfishness or cruelty (1 Jn. 3:18). Love always bears burdens and conveys outwardly what is treasured inwardly. Hope is not wishful thinking or desired outcomes; it is confidence in what one knows is true (Heb. 11:1). That hope is on display through a life that endures in the face of various trials, temptations, and tribulations (Js. 1:4).
Faith, love, and hope are virtues that find their expression in the everyday life of the church. Paul pins each to the person and work of Christ; thus, these each find their footing and substance in Him.
2. An Empowered Church
For the church to express itself in step with its virtues, it must acknowledge it cannot do so in its own strength or by its own authority. By the end of this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul prays that they be sanctified completely and kept blameless (1 Thess. 5:23). To seal that prayer in power, Paul doesn’t appeal to the church’s striving or diligence. Diligent as they might be, all spiritual growth is guaranteed in the character and integrity of God. The church’s assurance of sanctification is because “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).
That appeal to God’s character not only assures us that God will grow His church, but that God’s means for producing that growth are necessary and effective. In commending the church in Thessalonica, Paul knew that every spiritual act of faith, love, and hope was rooted in the truth of the gospel (1 Thess. 1:4-6). Amidst opposition and trouble for the sake of Christ (see Acts 17:1-9), the Thessalonian church drew from the only source of strength able to both save and sanctify: the living Word of God, which works in the hearts of all who believe (1 Thess. 2:13; cf. Jn. 17:17).
3. An Evangelistic Church
In the first chapter of his letter, Paul notes the excellence of the Thessalonians both in their love for one another (the church) and their devotion to others (the world). “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere” (1 Thess. 1:8). The admiration Paul had for this church centered around a refreshing simplicity embedded in their ecclesiology. In Thessalonica, the Word was central and its transformative power was on display. The depth and vibrancy of Christian life taking place in the church was the organic product of the Spirit at work through the gospel of Christ (1 Thess. 1:5).
The church can only ever work out what God works in it (Phil. 2:12-13). By God’s powerful grace, believers are made to be receptive to His Word and renewed by its transforming power. Even more so, that same grace enables evangelistic effort that isn’t forced or programmatic. Thessalonica didn’t have an evangelism team or outreach ministry. There weren’t sign-up sheets to suit the convenience of its members or quarter-cards outlining the four spiritual laws. What the Thessalonians had was simply their “faith in God.” That faith was evidently so bold, so counter-cultural, so life-changing, so set apart from the world, so rooted in the living and true God that it reverberated throughout the world with ease.
4. An Expectant Church
The Thessalonians understood that present ministry is fueled by glorious future realities. Paul’s thanksgiving for this church was tethered to their eager anticipation of Christ’s return. It was not merely that they were effective in doing much for God that inspired Paul’s admiration, it was that their spiritual activity was in harmony with their awaiting the Son from heaven (1 Thess. 1:10).
Working and waiting went hand-in-hand in the Thessalonian church. In fact, Paul encourages them as such when he writes, “You are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4). In other words, it was unnecessary to know when Christ will return, but sufficient to know with certainty that He would return. The Thessalonians weren’t clued in on Christ’s second advent, but even so, they were encouraged and exhorted to be found ready at His coming (1 Thess. 1:10; 3:11; 5:6-8; 5:23). The certainty of Christ’s return causes the church to straighten its back and press on with the mission set before them (Matt. 28:19-20).
Paul did not write to the church in Thessalonica as though they had “arrived” spiritually. His desire was to encourage them as to their progress and exhort them to excel still more in a life of faithful love and obedience unto God (1 Thess. 4:1).
The church in Thessalonica was by no means perfect, but their example serves as a template for the contemporary church to model as to the priorities and qualities that should be reflected in faithful, Christ-honoring ministry. They were a church devoted to living out what they believed, depending upon God’s means of grace and growth in the church, proclaiming the truth of the gospel as revealed in Christ, and awaiting the Lord’s return by remaining ready and fruitful.
May the Spirit at work then be at work in us now.