18 January 2021

The Thessalonians’ reputation. And ours.

1 Thessalonians 1.6-10.

In a few of the apostles’ other letters, the churches they were writing to had gone wrong, so they seriously needed to correct ’em. (I’m looking at you, 1 Corinthians and Revelation.) In the letters to Thessaloniki, Macedon, the locals needed a few pointers and minor corrections, but for the most part they were good. Better than good: They had a reputation for being amazing Christians. Not just in cranking out the good works, good fruit, and miracles: They were known for being a bunch of reformed pagans who eagerly pursued Jesus. And that’s a reputation you want. Certainly the reputation I want; certainly the reputation we all should have.

Paul, Silas, and Timothy continue to recap their experiences with the Thessalonians:

1 Thessalonians 1.6-10 KWL
6 You became imitators of both us and the Master,
accepting the message in great persecution, yet joy in the Holy Spirit.
7 Thus you became an example to all the believers in Macedon and Achaea:
8 The Master’s message echoed out from you.
Not only into Macedon and Achaea,
but your faith in God has gone out everywhere.
Hence we’ve no need to speak of it:
9 Other people proclaim to us what impact we had upon you:
How you turned away from the idols you were enslaved to,
back to the true and living God,
10 to await his Son from the skies, whom he raised from the dead,
Jesus, our rescuer from the coming wrath.

When revival breaks out in a church, you’re gonna see some responses. That’s a given. There’s definitely gonna be an outpouring of emotion—turning from darkness to light is a really emotional experience! Plus when the Holy Spirit really starts to do stuff, it tends to freak people out. Y’know how you might think you’re in a room by yourself, and it turns out someone else is in there, and they move or make a noise or otherwise make themselves known, and you jump? “Whoa!—I didn’t know you were there.” When God does this, multiply this minor freakout by a thousand. Because he’s always here. Always been here.

And yeah, we’re gonna see some negative stuff. We’ll see hypocrisy from Christians who think they oughta pretend to have the same level of zeal as the newbies. We’ll see profiteers trying to manipulate the newbies for their own gain. We’ll see naysayers, ’cause they’ll jealously insist the Spirit only behaves the way they claim he does, or that he only endorses their group. Y’know, like we saw in Acts when the Thessalonian synagogue leaders were outraged at how people were more interested in Jesus than in them. Ac 17.1-10

But let’s set aside the emotion, the fear, the noise, the distractions, the weirdos, the weepy, and the outraged. Look for the Spirit’s fruit. Can you find any? If it’s there, so’s the Holy Spirit.

Doing away with their idolatry.

When the apostles visited other churches, they heard tales of what the Thessalonians were up to. What struck other people as unique was how they’d “turned away from the idols you were enslaved to, back to the true and living God.” 1Th 1.9 KWL ’Cause when Greco-Roman pagans usually adopted a new god, they didn’t turn away from their other gods. Polytheists are polyamorous, y’know. They figure they can worship all the gods they want; they could just add Jesus to their pantheon. There are still pagans who figure they can do that with Jesus: They’re big fans of Krishna, of the Buddha, of Ayn Rand… and now they’ll add Jesus’s teachings to their frappé of beliefs, and make him fit where convenient.

Whereas true followers of Jesus recognize there’s only the one God, and throw away our old gods like used diapers.

You gotta realize the ancients never, ever did this with any of their other gods. Greco-Roman pagans were profoundly superstitious. Their myths were full of stories of people who’d quit their gods… so the gods were spiteful and vengeful and did terrible things to them in return. Even people who slightly insulted these gods got creamed. The Greco-Roman gods weren’t good! They were capricious: One day they’d love and bless you, and the next day, because you annoyed them—or because they wanted to help someone they liked better—they’d hate and smite you. Sometimes you and your entire nation. Zeus’s lightning and Poseidon’s earthquakes didn’t target an individual man like a drone strike; they wrecked whole cities like an atomic bomb.

Because the gods were so bipolar, the pagans had no accurate idea of what might please or enrage them. They took their chances. Just like people who live under a mad dictator, the Greeks and Romans were terrified of their gods—anything might get you in trouble with them. Watch your back constantly. Act the slave.

So while polytheists seldom care if you worship another god than they, it’s a huge deal if you reject any of the gods they fear. You see this attitude among ancient pagans; you likewise see it among certain Hindus, who are outraged whenever Muslims and Christians dare to reject any of their gods. When we monotheists insist there’s just the One God, it doesn’t go over well with them at all. It starts riots. Ac 19.23-41 The ancient Romans actually called us Christians “atheists”—as if we had no god, instead of just the One.

So the ancient Romans persecuted us. And later, once we Christians gained political power, we persecuted ’em right back. Not saying it’s ever right for Christians to persecute; I’m just relating what happened. But that’s centuries after 1 Thessalonians. Back to the first century.

This backlash is what the Thessalonian Christians had to deal with: Pagans who felt the Christians were undermining their traditional values. Pagans whose city government fully endorsed, and financed, the worship of the Greek gods. (Remember, there was no such thing as separation of church and state till the United States did it in the late 1700s.) Pagan monuments, dedicated to one god or another, were all over town. Paganism taught in the schools. Paganism in all the literature. We look at the Iliad and Odyssey as ancient poetic fiction, but pagans considered it history, and if you dared to claim otherwise, they’d smack you down with all the righteous fury of a young-earth creationist.

Despite this tremendous cultural pressure, the Thessalonian church had enthusiastically turned to the One True God. Considering what the apostles themselves dealt with throughout Greece, they couldn’t help but be impressed by that.

Our own culture is pretty clogged with idols too… though they don’t take the obvious forms of Zeus and Athena. They’re more subtle. Sometimes they’re politicos and their movements, wealth, hobbies, habits, sex, food and drink, or whatever draws our attention away from the One God to other things, and gets us to put our trust in the untrustworthy. Houses, cars, consumables, entertainment—we probably have more distractions than the Thessalonians ever did. It’s just as impressive how many of us have, despite all this, turned to Jesus.

Looking to Jesus’s return… and the coming wrath.

The Thessalonian letters deal quite a bit with the End Times. So yeah, I’m gonna write about that as it comes up.

When people are persecuted as the Thessalonians were, they don’t just think about their end, but the End. Non-Christians and dark Christians figure it’s ’cause victims like to keep themselves warm at night with the idea of God pouring nasty vengeance all over their enemies. (It’s what they would do.) But really, we think about the End Times because once we get killed… that’s what’s next for us. We spend a time in paradise, then Jesus returns, we become alive again, and we spend the next millennium in Kingdom Come.

So some of us naturally have questions about these topics. And the apostles had some answers. Starting with Jesus appearing in the skies, Mk 14.52 returning the same way he left, Ac 1.11 to take over the world and rule humanity forever. Da 7.14 It’s good news! Especially for those under persecution. Our Lord wins.

By “the coming wrath”: This is a reference to tribulation. Of any sort. For the Thessalonians, it was the persecution they were going through at the time. For us, it’s the persecution we may suffer when we go to dangerous places to share Jesus. He warns us persecution is part of the Christian life. Jn 16.33 He offers to bless us when we’re persecuted in his name. Mt 5.10-11

Darbyists assume this is the great tribulation, which they insist has yet to come. They’re not watching the skies for Jesus; they’re watching the news, looking for the Beast. Some think they’ll escape the Beast in a pre- or mid-tribulation rapture. Most figure they might have to fight to survive, which is why they’re buying guns and trusting no one.

Yeah of course it’s a false, godless interpretation. And persecution isn’t an automatic sign of success, righteousness, Jesus’s return, or anything. We persecuted the Greco-Roman pagans, remember? Some of us still persecute heretics or Muslims. We’d better never become persecutors. But read those Beatitudes sometime: We’re not blessed by persecution per se; we’re blessed when God gives us grace to survive persecution. We’re not to cringe from it in terror, and especially not seek it out! We’re to seek Jesus, and produce good fruit.

Dark Christian mindsets aren’t focused on Jesus. They’re pure selfishness, pure flesh; They’re all about what we need to do to stay safe and comfortable, and fight the End before it comes… or worse, help it come. They’re not about trusting Jesus. They’re not about waiting for the Father to determine when the time has come. That’s not for us to worry about; Ac 1.7 our duty is to preach the gospel, pray for Jesus’s soon return, and grace for every day. Especially when we’re legitimately under persecution.