The Spirit’s power in a new church.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 January 2021

1 Thessalonians 1.1-5.

This letter, which we traditionally call 1 Thessalonians, was a team effort. Most commentators, myself included, usually talk about it as if Paul of Tarsus did all the writing, and gave co-authorship to his team members out of courtesy. Timothy gets a mention in 1 Thessalonians 3.6, and since he’s spoken of in third person whereas Paul is always “I,” y’gotta wonder how much authoring Timothy really did.

But the giant run-on Greek sentences are a dead giveaway: This letter, same as probably all Paul’s letters, was dictated, spoken aloud to a scribe. Probably Paul doing most of the talking; possibly the other guys added a sentence or two. We don’t know the level of their contributions. We do know they’re listed as co-authors, so it wasn’t nothing.

Still, for convenience, I’ll refer to 1 Thessalonians’s authors as “Paul.” Here they go.

1 Thessalonians 1.1-5 KWL
1 Paul and Silas and Timothy. To the Thessalonian church, in Father God and Master Christ Jesus: Greetings. Shalom.
2 We always praise God for our every memory of you,
mentioning you in our prayers,
unceasingly 3 remembering your faith-works, love-labors,
and enduring hope in our master Christ Jesus, before God our Father.
4 We know, beloved fellow Christians, you were selected by God:
5 Our gospel didn’t come only to you in words but in power,
in the Holy Sprit, and in absolute certainty—
just like we demonstrated to you, when you saw us among you.

Paul and Silas were the apostles who helped found the church of Thessaloniki, the capital of Macedon (a Greco-Roman province which is not the same as present-day Macedonia). They first proclaimed Jesus in a Thessalonian synagogue, Ac 17.1-4 but the local Jews “became jealous” of their following and rioted, eventually hauling Paul’s relative Jason before the city leaders. Ac 17.6-9

Because the story in Acts is so brief, we don’t know how long Paul and Silas spent there developing the church. Obviously it was long enough to really get to know the people, and see what sort of Christians they became. Seems the Thessalonians made an impact on the apostles. Paul listed three things he particularly noticed in them: Faith-works, love-labors, and hope in Jesus. I could make a three-point sermon of it, but nah. I’ll leave that to the amateur preachers.

Obviously chosen by God.

Likely the reason Paul remembered the Thessalonians most, was the fact—which he considered an obvious fact—God had chosen them to become Christian. God deliberately meant for the people of this city to enter his kingdom and have eternal life, so God deliberately selected the people of this church to lead ’em there.

How did Paul know? Fruit. “Our gospel didn’t come only to you in words but in power, in the Holy Sprit, and in absolute certainty—just like we demonstrated to you, when you saw us among you.” 1Th 1.5 God confirmed his intentions for these people with visible manifestations of supernatural power. They did stuff. The Holy Spirit had empowered them to do good works, with supernatural consequences, and probably in some supernatural manner from time to time: They did miracles.

Churches nowadays, especially those which are skeptical of miracles, tend to ignore every testimony of the supernatural, and don’t really look to good fruit all that often. We figure God’s involved in our activity when the numbers go up: We get more attendees, more people watch our YouTube videos, more people ask to become members, more likes appear on our Facebook page and Twitter feed, we get a lot of baptisms, we get more money in the offering plates. More people crowd the front of the auditorium, eager to sing along to whatever the worship band is playing.

Hey, doesn’t Acts mention big numbers of new believers more than once? Sure. But numbers prove nothing other than we have fans. Same as the thousands who came to hear Jesus preach… and maybe he’d sometimes feed ’em bread and fish. But when they followed him to synagogue and he told them to eat him, they balked. Numbers mean interest. They don’t mean people have the Holy Spirit indwelling them. You won’t know that till you see the Spirit produce good fruit… and miracles.

Cessationists tend to dismiss signs and wonders as a carnival sideshow, as entertainment for thrill-seekers. And yeah, we have a lot thrill-seekers in the movement. Every movement has its nutjobs. But signs do serve a legitimate purpose: They’re to draw people to Jesus. If they don’t—if they won’t do any good, and are a distraction instead of a draw—God answers our prayer requests for power with “No; not today; you got a wicked generation here demanding miracles.” This is why Jesus didn’t perform miracles on demand: Miracles are revelation. But if people want entertainment instead of revelation—if they want fun instead of salvation—God doesn’t care to indulge us.

So when a preacher comes forward to preach, and words are spoken, and people flock forward to embrace Jesus, we can’t always be sure what really brought ’em forward. Might be an especially gifted speaker. Might be an emotional response. Might be peer pressure. But when signs happen—when the sick get cured, demons get thrown out, the needy get care, the hopeless hear prophecy and get their hope back, and the Spirit’s gifts and fruit pour out of his people, it’s certainty. It’s proof God is here among us, and wants these people saved. He’s showing up in force to make it so. He wants these people. He chose them.

Certain bibles translate ἐκλογὴν/ekloyín as “election,” and election is a pretty loaded word because of the way Calvinists like to interpret it. To them, it means God wants to save some people, not everyone; and God predetermined at the beginning of time which of us he’d save. We didn’t know this plan; all we know is one day we “stumbled” into salvation, but it turns out God planned it eons ago.

That’s actually not election. It’s not part of any secret plan of God; he makes it outrageously obvious about the people he intends to save. In the scriptures, God appears to people. God parts seas for them. God becomes human and calls them off their fishing boats. Miracles abound. Fruit overflows. God wants these people, and even pagans can see it.

Paul’s team demonstrated these traits to the Thessalonians when they first arrived. Now, the Thessalonians demonstrated them back. They weren’t just converted intellectually or emotionally. The acts of the Holy Spirit could be seen among them. Sounds like a good group. Wish more of us behaved that way.

Faith-works and love-labors.

Often this gets translated, as the KJV, “work of faith, and labor of love.” In so doing, this comes across as Hebrew poetry—a repeated idea, where Paul speaks of two of the Spirit’s fruit visible in their good deeds. But these aren’t two of the same sort of good deeds. Yeah, a labor of love would be your basic good deed, done out of compassion and charity. But a work of faith springs from faith—we do it, don’t fully understand why we’re doing it, but trust God enough to do it anyway.

When we act on faith, and do faith-works, our faith grows exponentially. First of all, the results reveal all kinds of things which were previously hidden, and we can plainly see God is behind it all. Our faith gets strengthened. We trust God more. And God gives us more: Once he finds an obedient follower, he gives us lots to obey, and lots to be blessed by. We grow in Christian maturity that much faster.

If you’ve ever wondered how Paul could spend only a few months with a church, then declare it ready to run on its own and move on, this is why. Faith-works grow and mature a church really fast. So fast, it scares the neighbors. (Which, in Acts, wasn’t always a good thing.)

In our culture, by way of comparison, we leave the training wheels on far too long. We give our ministers good works to do, and that’s important. But the Christians in our churches are too often waiting for their leaders to tell ’em what to do. We should be getting our marching orders directly from the Holy Spirit, and our leaders are there to confirm, encourage, support, and equip—not delay. Really, our churches have far too much delay built in. No surprise, the church advances slowly… and too often retreats.