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Living in Light of Jesus' Return: A Turn to God from Idols

Series: Living in Light of Jesus' Return

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 20, 2012

1 Thessalonians 1:7-10

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The Lord's Day Morning

May 20, 2012

“Living Life in Light of Jesus’ Return: A Turn to God from Idols”

1 Thessalonians 1:7-10

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 1. We’re going to be looking at verses 7 to 10 today but I want to pick up reading in verse 6 so that we're not picking up in the middle of a sentence. And I also want us to connect this passage with the passage we studied last Lord's Day. We looked at verses 4 to 6 in which Paul is giving thanks to God and he's giving encouragement to the Thessalonians for what he sees God doing in their midst. And he's continuing that thought today. In fact, he's specifying one of the things that he is thankful for.

You will remember last week when we talked about verse 6 we noted that Paul thanked God and commended the Thessalonians that they had imitated him, that they had imitated their Lord, especially in receiving the Word even through suffering, and they’d done it with joy. Well, he picks up on that thought of their imitation and verses 7 and 8 he shows us, he describes to us, the change that the Gospel had worked in them and it's a change that had led them to having a reputation amongst the other Christians and even the larger community in Macedonia and Achaia and some of the other places where Paul was going to preach. And he's thanking God for that. They had a reputation that had preceded them and it was a good reputation. And Paul would start to tell people about it and the people would say, “We've already heard about it.” And Paul, especially in verses 7 and 8 and a little bit in verse 9, will describe that reputation, the change that God had worked in them by the Holy Spirit that people had heard about. So be on the lookout for that.

Then also in verse 9 he will describe conversion. He gives a sentence that's one of the best descriptions of conversion that you’ll find in all of the New Testament. What happens when conversion happens in a person's life? Well he describes it in verse 9, especially in the final clause there in verse 9. We’ll look at that. And then finally he describes how they are living. You’ll see that in verse 10. So as we read through this passage, we’ll read from verses 6 all the way to 10, we’ll focus on verses 7 and 10, but I hope you’ll allow me to go back and pull just a couple of things out of verse 6 just for the flow of Paul's thought. But be on the lookout for this description of the change that God has worked in them, this description of conversion, and then this description of how they are living.

Let's pray before we read God's Word.

Lord, this is Your Word. We live not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So like the Thessalonians of old, help us, O God, not to receive this Word as merely the words of men but for what it is, the very Word of God. This isn't just Paul writing two thousand years ago, it's Paul inspired by the Holy Spirit writing the Word of God to us, so help us to receive it that way. Open our eyes by the Spirit to understand it and to believe and to embrace it. We ask these things in Jesus' name, amen.

This is the Word of God beginning in verse 6:

“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 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, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

A couple of months ago, a group of about eight thousand pastors and church leaders met in Louisville, Kentucky at a gathering called, Together for the Gospel. The theme was “The Underestimated Gospel,” and one of our concerns was to make sure that even those who preach the Gospel don't fall into the trap of underestimating its power. The Gospel has the power to change lives. To illustrate that, many of the sessions were opened with testimonies of Christians who had been dramatically converted and their lives had been dramatically changed by the power of the Gospel. One of the ones that struck me most was a young pastor's wife who, along with her husband, were about to take up the charge in a small church in Indiana. She grew up in Arkansas and she lived a life of promiscuity and alcohol and drug abuse. She became pregnant out of wedlock with the man who became her husband. They were involved in the distribution of drugs and in fact on one occasion, they were having a drug party at their house with their infant child present. That's the kind of life they were living. And a Christian woman shared the Gospel with her and got her to church and she came to faith in Christ and he came to faith in Christ and their lives were dramatically changed. And now they’re a Baptist pastor and Baptist pastor's wife, ministering to a congregation of Bible-believing Christians in Indiana. And we said there's the power of the Gospel at work in the lives of people whose lives were a mess — dramatically changed and transformed.

And Paul's talking about that kind of power here, you understand. Paul is saying to the Thessalonians, “I thank God that I've seen the power of the Gospel at work in your lives. And it's not just me; word has gotten out! When I'm in Macedonia, when I'm in Achaia, even when I'm in other places, I’ll get ready to tell people, ‘Let me tell you the Gospel has power. Let me give you an illustration. There's this church in Thessalonica’ and people will say, ‘Oh no, we've already heard about that, Paul. We've heard about what's happening among those people. We've heard about how the Gospel has changed their lives.’” So before he can even get the words out of his mouth people are already saying, “Oh, we've heard!” And Paul is thanking God for that and he's commending and encouraging the Thessalonians with that and in the course of doing that, I want you to see three things in this passage. First of all, I want you to see how the Gospel is made visible in the church. Secondly, I want you to see what conversion entails. And then third, I want you to see the life that converted believers in the church live in light of the Gospel.

THE CHURCH MAKES THE GOSPEL VISIBLE

So the first thing I want you to see you’ll see especially in verses 7 and 8. But go ahead and dip back into verse 6 because what Paul is going to say here — this is a little sentence but it's big with truth — what Paul is going to say here in verses 7 and 8 is that the church makes the Gospel visible. The Gospel is made visible in the church. Now the Gospel we stressed last week comes by hearing. Paul says in Romans 10, “Faith comes by hearing.” The Gospel has to be shared with words. You can't share the Gospel wordlessly because the Gospel is an announcement. It's not something that we do. It's about what God does and so you have to speak it; you can't do it. We didn't do the Gospel; we don't do the Gospel. God did the Gospel and we have to tell other people about what God did. That's why you have to use words to share the Gospel. But the Gospel does not merely come in words, it comes in power and it results in transformed lives. And so in the church we are to see the glorious effect of the Gospel at work in people's lives. And in that sense, the church makes the Gospel visible. In the church, the power of the Gospel in what it does, in how it transforms us and how it changes us, is made visible to others, and that way they know these people aren't just talking, what they’re talking about has validity and reality. It has an impact - a dramatic change results from what the Gospel says and brings. In the congregation, the glorious reality created by the Holy Spirit in the Gospel is manifested to the watching world.

And Paul catalogues how that happened amongst the Thessalonians. And he says five or six things. Look back at verse 6. “First of all,” he said, “here's one way that the Gospel was manifested. You became imitators of us. You became imitators of us,” he says in verse 6. Have you ever been around a Christian and you say, maybe you don't even say it out loud but you do say it to yourself, you say, “When I grow up, I want to be a Christian like that. When I grow up I want to be a Christian like him; I want to be a Christian like her.” Have you ever been around a Christian like that? I hope you have. That's one of the great encouragements of life to be around people who so manifest the reality of the Gospel that it motivates us to be more Christ-like. And Paul says that's exactly what happened with the Thessalonians. After Paul and his church planting team came in — they were only there for three weeks — suddenly people who had been pagans are saying, “I want to live like that. I want to be like them. I want my life to look like their lives look.”

They became imitators of Paul, but not only that, of the Lord. Look at verse 6. “You became imitators of us and of the Lord.” You know, Paul, throughout the New Testament, is constantly calling on Christians to follow after Jesus’ example. Now Jesus is not just an example to us. The Gospel is not, “Jesus has set a good example — be good.” If that's the Gospel we're all in trouble. The Gospel is about what Jesus has done for us that we could not do and would not do for ourselves. But having declared the glorious truth of Jesus and His person and work, what He's done for us on the cross, so often Paul and the other writers of the New Testament encourage us to follow Jesus’ example. So for instance he will say to the Philippians in Philippians chapter 2 verse 5, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” So in that passage he's encouraging the Philippians not to be selfish and prideful but to be humble and giving like Jesus. Or, Paul will tell the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians chapter 8 verse 9, “Though He was rich, yet He became poor for your sakes that You might become rich in Him.” And he’ll say that in order to encourage the Corinthians to be generous in their giving the way that Jesus had been generous in giving Himself. So over and over in the New Testament you will see Paul and other writers pointing to Jesus and encouraging believers to follow specific aspects of His behavior as their example. And Paul's saying, “You did that, Thessalonians. You not only imitated us, you sought to imitate Jesus.”

And then third, look what else he says. We’re still in verse 6. “They received the Word even through affliction.” Even though becoming Christians cost them dearly — they were persecuted and afflicted because they received the Word. In other words, because they believed the Gospel they had a lot of trouble for it. It's very interesting. These are pagans. These are polytheistic idolaters and the Romans had no problem with you adding another god to your personal pantheon. But when you started to say that all the other gods were false and only this God that you’re now worshiping is true, you got in trouble. And that's what happened to these Thessalonians. There were people that did not appreciate what it was that they were now believing, having received that from the apostle Paul. And they had a lot of affliction. And Paul said, “You believed anyway. You didn't believe the Gospel because it meant Easy Street for you. You believed the Gospel even though affliction.”

But he says something else as well. This is the fourth thing he says. He says, “You received the Word even through affliction but you did it with joy,” which is so like Paul and it's so like Jesus. You remember the picture of Paul and Silas in the Philippians jail? They've been beaten to a pulp and they’re awaiting arraignment and what are they doing at midnight? They are singing hymns! Is that not a picture of trusting God through affliction with joy? And who's that like? It's like Jesus. What does the author of Hebrews say in Hebrews 12, the very first verses? That “our Lord Jesus Christ endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy set before Him.” And Paul's saying, “You all are imitating us, and you’re imitating your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in that way too, that even in your trials, even in your afflictions there is joy.”

And then he goes on to say, and here's the fifth thing. Look at verse 7 — “So that you became an example.” So they imitated Paul and Jesus and word got out about that - and guess what happened? Other Christians started saying, “We want to be like them!” Isn't that interesting? They see Paul and they say, “We want to be like him.” They hear about Jesus and they say, “We want to be like him.” And then other Christians see them and they say, “We want to be like them.” They went from being imitators to being examples. So other Christians now are saying, “We want to imitate them.”

And then, sixth, look at what Paul says, verse 8 — “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 so that we need not say anything.” Paul's not saying that he doesn't need to preach the Gospel anymore because they've been changed; he's saying that, “I can hardly go anywhere in this region and tell your story without someone interrupting me and saying, ‘I've already heard about that, Paul.’” And what Paul is saying is that it's opened the door for fruitful Gospel witness because now, “When I go out, people know that the Gospel comes with power. They know that the Gospel comes with power. So they’re sitting on the edge of their seat when I'm preaching the Gospel because they know the Word that I'm preaching has resulted in a dramatic transformation in you. Your reputation has gone forth. There are lots of people who know how you've been changed by the Gospel.”

So here's what I want to ask you, First Presbyterian Church — I wonder what they would say out there about what's going on in here. How is the Gospel dramatically changing us? Paul's commending and encouraging the Thessalonians and he's thanking God for the change that has been manifested. How's the Gospel changing us? Paul's describing here how the church makes the Gospel visible. In the church, the power of the Gospel is manifested in the transformation that it brings about in people's lives. How's that showing for us?

A few years ago, our friend, Mark Dever, who's the pastor at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., was talking with the pastor of a small church here in the south. This man pastors — I say a small church; it's probably the largest church in his community but he pastors in a small town — four or five thousand people. And in the course of the conversation the man said to Mark, “We've had two hundred baptisms at the church in this last year.” Now understand this is a Baptist church. It doesn't mean baptisms like this; it means adult baptisms by profession of faith. That's supposed to mean that people's lives have been changed and their coming to faith in Jesus Christ and that there's a transformation there. And so Mark asked that guy, when he says, “We've had four hundred baptisms,” he says, “You must have set your town on it's ear!” And the brother says back to him, “I don't know what you’re talking about.” And Mark says, “Wait a second. You've got four or five thousand people in your town. You’re telling me that two hundred people have been converted to the Lord and not everybody is talking about it?”

It was a very interesting conversation. We could go all sorts of directions with that, but here's what I want you to understand. Mark was expecting that if those two hundred baptisms represented conversions to Christ in a town of four or five thousand, there are going to be a few people who hear about that and they’re going to be saying, “Boy, the Lord's doing something in that church! People's lives are being changed!” Well look, Presbyterians believe in conversion too and we believe in lives being changed, so I wonder what they’d say about us out there? What's the Lord up to in that congregation? How's the Gospel being made visible in that congregation? Now I understand that ultimately we can't project or perception or our reputation to the community. In fact, I'm sure that if we went to Thessalonica we would have met some people in Thessalonica who would have looked over at that group of Thessalonians Christians and said, “Those people are a bunch of nuts!” I'm sure we would have found those. So the question I'm asking you is not ultimately about public relations or marketing. It's about the perception of the reality of what's going on here. Do we see the Gospel being manifested in changed lives, and if we don't, we need to ask why not.

THE ESSENCE OF CONVERSION IS TURNING

FROM IDOLATRY TO TRUE WORSHIP

Here's the second thing I want you to see. You’ll see this especially in verse 9. I love how Paul describes conversion here. “They themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Now the New Testament has all sorts of ways that it summarizes what conversion is. It can talk about our going from death to life. Think about Ephesians 1. “You were dead in your trespasses and sins but God made you alive together in Christ.” You get the same kind of language when Jesus is talking to Nicodemus in John chapter 3. So there is images like “from darkness to light” from “death to life” from “being dead to being born anew” or “from above” or “born again.” There’re all these summaries and pictures of what conversion involves. Well here's one of them — “You turned from idolatry to serve the living and true God.” Isn't that a glorious description of conversion?

Now in this context, of course, these people really were pagan idolaters, and by the way, this phrase probably indicates that most of this congregation was Gentile. You wouldn't have said this about a Jewish congregation. They weren't idol worshipers in Paul's day, as it were. But these pagan Gentile Thessalonians were. They were idol worshipers. And they turned from those idols to the living and the true God. But idol worship is not restricted to people who are pagan polytheists. All of us struggle with idolatry. Idolatry is a universal and perennial sin. It is a fundamental sin. It's a foundational sin that all of us fight against. And I wonder if this could be said of us, that we have turned from our idols to serve the living and true God? Would that be one thing that people could say about us? You know, “Something's going on at First Presbyterian Church because they've turned from their idols to serve the living and the true God. They’re not just following like lemmings over the cliff, the culture around them in Jackson, Mississippi, going after the things that everybody else is going after. They've turned from those idols to serve the living and the true God.” Would they say that about us?

Now I thought about listing some of those idols, you know, list six of them or nine of them or twelve of them that we might be going after without even realizing that we're going after. But I figured if I did that, even if I listed twelve, you might come away from that saying, “Whew, none of those twelve were mine so maybe I don't have a problem with idolatry.” So I think what I'm going to do instead is ask you three questions you can ask yourself to identify what your idols are because we all have them. And here are my three questions. The first one is this: What do you think about? Derek used to ask this question to us in this way: What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything else? And what I mean by that is, you know, in those moments when you are frustrated and disappointed by something and you seek escape in your thoughts, typically what you’re thinking about is designed to give you relief from whatever your frustration and your disappointment is. It gives you pleasure, it gives you satisfaction, it gives you security. What do you think about in those moments? It might be right before you fall asleep at night. You know, you’re trying to escape from the problems of the day and in your mind you’re dreaming, you’re wishing, you’re fantasying about something, about someone, about some desire. What do you think about? What are the things in those quiet moments when you’re away from the press of the immediate demand and the fight of the day, what is that thing that you think about that gives you hope and delight? When you begin to identify that thing or those things, you’re coming close to identifying your idols.

Here's a second question: How do you spend your time, your resources, and your energy? How do you spend your time, your resources, and your energy? Because when you look at those three things and you ask that question, you’re going to see the things that you really care about. You know twenty years ago I can remember sociologists saying that a day is going to come when people value time, their time, more than they value money, and I thought that was crazy. And I'm really understanding that more and more now. Maybe it's because I'm older, maybe it's because of the rush of the culture that we're in, but time and resources and energy, those are precious things. We have a finite amount of those, no matter how much we have. And how you use those things indicates what you really value because typically you spend your time and your resources and your energy on the things that you care about the most. And so if you’ll ask that question you’ll probably be able to identify some of your idols. What do I spend my time on? What do I spend my money on? What do I spend my energy on?

And then third, ask yourself the question: What disappoints me? What are my disappointments? What absolutely crushes me with disappointment? And chances are, if you answer that question honestly of yourself you’re going to find an idol. There's going to be something that you think that you need to have or something that you desperately want to have that you don't have and you’re disappointed by it. It may be a situation that you have in your life that you don't want. It may be a situation that you do not have in your life that you do want. And you are crushingly disappointed by it. It may have to do with your family life. It may have to do with your vocation. It may have to do with your children or your parents, but you are disappointed by it. And if you’ll think about it for a while, you may well be able to identify your idols.

Those are three ways to identify your idols, but every — it is true of every converted believer, of every Christian, that we have turned from our idols to serve the living and true God. It doesn't mean that our battle with idolatry ends, but it should mean, it should mean that people can tell that we are worshipers of God ultimately rather than worshipers of anything else. An idol is anything, anything in which we think we can get ultimate security and satisfaction apart from God, or from better than God. We are setting that up as our ultimate source of satisfaction and security and we all struggle with that idolatry. You know, when people around looked at the Thessalonian Christians they could tell, “You’re no longer idol worshipers. You really believe that God alone is to be worshiped and He is the source of your security and satisfaction. Now we may not have statues in our homes or in our cars or in our purses to put away like pagan idolaters but we've all got idols to put away. So would people look and say, “Yep, those Christians at First Presbyterian Church Jackson, they've turned from idols to serve the living and the true God”?

LIVING LIFE IN LIGHT OF JESUS’ RETURN

Third, in this passage, Paul makes it clear that the Thessalonians were living life in light of Jesus’ return. Listen to the language that he used. “They turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,” verse 10, “and to wait for His Son from heaven whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Did you hear what he said? One of the ways that people saw that the Thessalonians’ lives had been changed by the Gospel is that they were now living life in light of Jesus’ return. They were waiting expectantly for the return of the Lord. This does not mean that they were pie in the sky by and by. What it means is that their life now was changed because of their confident expectation that Jesus is going to come again.

And look at what it says that Jesus was going to do when He came. It's very interesting. Now see if you can remember the last verse that Josh read from Revelation 6. No peeking yet! And then listen to this phrase in 1 Thessalonians 1 verse 10. “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Now what was the last verse that Josh read? When Jesus comes, what is the world going to face? Revelation 6 says, “The wrath of the Lamb.” But these Thessalonians are confident that they will not face the wrath of the Lamb because Jesus has delivered them from the wrath of the Lamb. How? By bearing that wrath for them, and thus, though they look for a day when God is going to come and set everything right and punish every sin and bring about a just judgment of all wickedness, yet they are not going to face that wrath because Jesus has died for them. And they long for Jesus to return because they know that He will deliver them in that day and they live their lives in that light. It's changed their ambitions, it's changed their desires, it's changed their behaviors, it's changed their worship.

Would people say that about us? About you? About me? It would kill me if you did not think that the Gospel made a difference in the way that I lived. It hugely encourages me when I see people in the congregation for whom the Gospel has made an enormous difference in the way that you live. One of the great ways that we bear witness to the watching world that the Gospel is true is in the way that the Gospel transforms our lives and sets us free from idolatry to serve the living and true God. So even as Paul encourages the Thessalonians and thanks God for them, we're learning something that ought to be our aspiration. Lord, we want to be freed from idolatry to serve You because You’re the only living and true God and we want people around us, our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues at work, to know that the Gospel has changed us so that they’re saying, “Something's going on over there among the saints at First Presbyterian Church. God is doing something there.”

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for the Gospel. We ask, O Lord, that You would be at work in us in such a way as to change us and that that would make the Gospel visible in our congregation in such a way that other Christians and even unbelievers would know that the Gospel is not merely words but it comes with power. It is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.

Psalm 1 is about a person whose life has been changed by God and who now loves the Word. Let's sing from our hymnals, number 558. It's a version of Psalm 1, “That Man is Blest Who Fearing God.”

Receive now the Lord's blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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