The Gospel and the Church
by Jack Wald | February 3rd, 2019

I Thessalonians 1:5

The opening four verses of I Thessalonians tell us that:

The church is a community which lives in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

The church is a community which is distinguished by faith, hope and love

The church is a community which is loved and chosen by God

This is where we have been the last two sermons. This morning we make a transition from characteristics of the church to the gospel: how it comes to us, how we receive it, and how we send it out. This will be the focus for this morning and next Sunday.

This transition from the characteristics of the church to the gospel is a natural connection. John Stott writes in his commentary:
It was natural for Paul to move on in his mind from God’s church to God’s gospel because he could not think of either without the other. It is by the gospel that the church exists and by the church that the gospel spreads. Each depends on the other. Each serves the other.

A church does not exist until the gospel comes and then, as the church functions as a community which lives in relationship with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; as a community which is distinguished by faith, love, and hope that are expressed in tangible, practical ways; and as a community which is loved and chosen by God – then the gospel can begin to be shared with others.

Let’s begin: How does the gospel come to us?

Paul wrote:
our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.

The gospel came to the church in Thessalonica. It came with words. It came with power. It came with the Holy Spirit. It came with deep conviction.

The gospel comes to us. The route it takes differs for each of us, but by whatever route, it comes. Where did Paul hear the gospel? First of all, he heard the gospel in the scriptures, the Old Testament, the only scriptures that existed until about 200 AD. He read about the promised Messiah in Isaiah and other prophets. Paul (Saul until he took on his Greek name, Paul) studied the scriptures under the tutelage of Gamaliel. Saul knew the scriptures forwards and backwards, but he missed the truth that was revealed in the scriptures. He was blind to the scriptures that pointed toward Jesus, the Messiah, and had not yet been given his sight.

Second, he heard the gospel from the preaching of the disciples. As he persecuted the church, he also heard the preaching in the church. Paul was a skilled debater so he listened to the message and then argued against it with his knowledge of the scriptures. In order to debate effectively he had to understand the arguments of these new Christians and then find ways to pick their argument apart. But again, he missed the power of the truth they proclaimed. He was, once again, blind to that truth.

Third, he heard the gospel from Stephen who gave his testimony of Jesus and then asked God to forgive those who were stoning him. It was Paul who told Luke what Stephen said as he died.

Saul heard what Stephen said, he may have marveled at what Stephen said, but that did not open his eyes to the truth that led Stephen to forgive those who were stoning him (Saul included).

Fourth, he had an exceptional revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Here is where Saul was physically blinded and it took three days before he met with Ananias and his sight was restored. But more powerfully, it was his spiritual blindness that was healed and he understood that Jesus was the Messiah.

I think the first time I heard the gospel was from a Sunday School teacher in the church my family attended. This was a theologically moderate to liberal church where a personal relationship with God was not mentioned, but a man passed through who shared the gospel with the class I attended. I remember sitting in the class and thinking, “This is different.” But like Paul, I did not see the truth.

When I was a freshman in high school my sister returned from university and shared with us her new found discovery that we could have a personal relationship with Jesus. I listened but did not let her know what I was thinking.

A few years later a woman who was dating a student at the end of the hall where I lived shared her story of Jesus with me. I talked with several others and then when I was visiting my sister and brother-in-law over spring break, I finally submitted to God.

Each of you have a trail you can follow as Jesus spoke to you through various people.

It was Paul, Silas, and Timothy who brought the gospel to Thessalonica.

The gospel came with words.

There are many ways to present the gospel. The gospel is revealed in drama, in skits, in film, in dance, in mime, in painting. But in order for these artistic expressions to communicate the gospel, there must be words behind them and words must be used to interpret them and discuss them. Words matter. Without words, communication is very limited.

In fact, the words need to be in a language we share. If I share the gospel with English words, little is communicated to someone who only speaks Arabic. Paul preached Greek to the Greek speakers in Thessalonica. When we move to a country that speaks a different language, learning that language fluently enough to communicate our faith is critical.

Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2)
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

Peter wrote (1 Peter 3:15)
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

We need to be prepared. We have to examine our faith. What is it we believe? Why is it we believe what we believe? Saying to someone, “If you only believed as I believe, you would follow Jesus as well,” is inadequate. Every religious follower, every cult member, will say the same thing.

You have to examine your faith, understand your faith in all its depth, and then find ways to articulate what you believe. We have to choose the right words to communicate what it is we believe.

The gospel came with words but also with power.

As soon as I say this, there will be different understandings of what “power” means. For those who come from a Pentecostal background, power is revealed through miracles, healing, and deliverance. And it is true that this power was a significant part of the ministry of Paul.

On Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas as his companion, they traveled to the island of Cyprus where Paul silenced a sorcerer and false prophet who was opposing them by causing him to be blind. This demonstration of power led the proconsul to become a follower of Jesus.

In Iconium Luke writes: (Acts 14:3)
So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.

From Iconium Paul and Barnabas went to Lystra where they encountered a man who had been lame since birth. (Acts 14:8–10)
He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

Miracles, healing, and deliverance were a part of Paul’s preaching of the gospel and were used by God to draw people to the truth of Paul’s message.

This is how those from a Pentecostal background read this verse,
The gospel came with words but also with power.

Those who come from a non-Pentecostal background understand power differently. John Stott writes,
The reference is probably not to external miracles which are normally designated by the plural word ‘powers’ (dynameis), but to the internal operation of the Holy Spirit. It is only by his power that the Word can penetrate people’s mind, heart, conscience and will.

It is the powerful work of the Holy Spirit that transforms the hearts and minds of people that is meant by this verse:
The gospel came with words but also with power.

Let me share how I understand this verse. What is the greatest miracle? Is it raising someone from the dead? Is it having a withered arm extend itself and become whole? Is it giving a blind person sight? These are spectacular miracles, but they pale in comparison to someone who turns from the path they were on and begins to follow Jesus. What is stunning and amazing for me is to see someone who turns and declares that they are now a follower of Jesus and then holds on to this brand new faith in the midst of opposition and persecution.

I have seen people who shared their faith story and were baptized and then for one reason or another gradually distanced themselves from Jesus and the church. Jesus saw the same thing. His parable of the man who sowed seed on different soils talks about how the gospel is heard by people but not all those who hear will hold on to the seed and see it become fruitful in their lives.

Those who receive the gospel and hold on to it despite the obstacles, despite the temptations, despite the persecution are truly miraculous.

The members of the church in Thessalonica were brand new followers of Jesus and the new church was met with strong persecution. Paul had to flee the city. The Jewish leaders who raised opposition to Paul followed him to Berea and forced him to leave there as well. These Jewish leaders turned their attention to the new followers of Jesus in Thessalonica and persecuted them. What did this persecution look like? We can only imagine, but because Paul describes the persecution as “severe suffering”, it must have involved economic persecution, cultural persecution, as well as physical persecution. These persecuted, brand-new followers of Jesus held on to their faith. That is an amazing miracle.

It is the change in the heart of a person that the Holy Spirit brings that is powerful. How that happens depends on which of the many varied tools God uses. Deliverance is a tool. Healing is a tool. But these are not the only tools in God’s toolbox. Loving someone in the name of Jesus is also a tool. Holding someone’s hand as they grieve and praying for them is a tool. Kindness is a tool. Bringing a meal to someone who has a new baby or who has a family emergency is a tool. Welcoming someone to your home and giving them tea and cookies and a listening ear as you use your gift of hospitality is a tool. Feeding the poor in the name of Jesus is a tool. Working to help people find justice is a tool. Counseling is a tool.

It does not matter which tool is used; it is the way the tool used brings life into the heart of someone that is powerful. What good would it have done for the paralytic who was lowered through the roof to where Jesus was speaking if the only thing that happened was that he stood up, walked, and carried his mat out the door? He would have walked and that would have been wonderful. But the most significant thing that happened to him that day is when Jesus told him, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” That was the most powerful event in his day.

God has many tools and we may have our favorites, but all of God’s tools are used to move with power into our lives, transforming us into the image of Christ. Each of the gifts of the Spirit are tools God uses, each of them, not just some of them.

But listen, if we make the tools the focus, we risk making idols of them. We begin to look to the tools rather than to God. When we do that, we measure the success of a gathering of the church by how many people were healed, by how many people were delivered. If there were no healings and no one was delivered, then the gathering was less successful. When we assess our gatherings like this we limit God in the way he can work. We determine the value of a meeting by whether or not the tools we like were used and were effective. In the process we fail to see and minimize the powerful work of God in the gathering as other tools brought the truth with power to those at the gathering.

The goal is not the use of a tool. The goal is to see a transformation in the hearts of the people at the gathering. If we make the tools the focus, we unnecessarily divide the body of Christ.

I am grateful for the ministry of FCI, Fellowship of Champions International, that Elliot leads. In that ministry people are being delivered, people are being healed. In my Moroccan friend’s ministry there are healings and deliverances. God is working powerfully in these ministries but the power is not the healings and not the deliverances; the power is in transformed lives. Don’t confuse the tool with the goal.

Over the past couple years I have experienced a much deeper work of God in my life. I have received healing for some of the wounds of my past. How did this happen? It happened because I have talked with a counselor and through his help, I have experienced healing. I have a much deeper sense of being loved which has given me a greater security. God has worked powerfully in my life.

Genesis 1 tells us the Spirit hovered over the newly created planet and then there was an explosion of life in brilliant variety of color and design. That same creative Spirit is at work in our lives and has an unlimited variety of tools to use to bring transformation in our lives.

our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.

The words Paul spoke came with power and deep conviction. Paul was convinced of what he was saying. He was confident he was speaking words of truth. How confident was he? Consider what he suffered to bring the truth he had experienced to the cities of the Roman Empire. (2 Corinthians 11:24–25)
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones,

Is Paul overstating his suffering? He was not simply “pelted with stones”. Luke writes that he was stoned and left for dead. His limp body was dragged outside the city of Lystra and left for the animals to eat. Paul paid a severe price for the words he spoke with power.

Despite how Paul was treated. Despite the physical and emotional abuse Paul received, he spoke the truth of what he had experienced with deep conviction.

Why was Paul convinced of the truth he preached? Paul/Saul was convinced that he was doing what was right when he persecuted the early followers of Jesus. Even when he heard Stephen forgive those who were stoning him he was convinced of what he was doing. It was not until Jesus appeared to him in the noonday sun that God was able to get his attention and reveal to him that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

When Saul lay on the ground, blinded by the glory of the resurrected Jesus, he heard his death sentence. Saul asked, (Acts 9:5–6) “Who are you, Lord?”

Saul knew that he was in the presence of the divine being and when Jesus answered he knew his life was over. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,”

“Oh no!” is not nearly strong enough to express what Saul said to himself. Think of words you might say but not in church and you are getting closer to what I think Saul said to himself.

But then he heard that his death sentence had been pardoned. Jesus said to him, “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Paul’s life was over and then he had been forgiven. He never forgot that initial experience of Jesus.

He wrote to the church in Corinth and described the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 15:3–10) He talked about Jesus appearing to Peter, then to the twelve, then to 500 of the brothers and sisters, then to James, then to a larger group of those who became apostles. After all this, he writes:
and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

Paul was driven to carry out the mission Jesus gave to him in Damascus. Paul was to take the gospel, the good news of Jesus, to the Gentile world.

This was not the only encounter with Jesus Paul experienced. He spent three years in the Arabian Peninsula studying, learning, praying. While there he had mysterious experiences with God he hints at. He wrote to the Corinthian church in defense of his credentials to preach and teach and bring the gospel to them. (2 Corinthians 12:2–4)
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

Paul’s rich life with Jesus deepened his conviction that the gospel he was preaching was true. His life with Jesus kept his faith a present experience, not just a past event.

Once again Paul’s focus in not on the gifts he used in his ministry, not on the fruit of his ministry, but on his relationship with Jesus. That is what was precious to him. That is what he guarded.

Paul carried the truth of the gospel as a precious gift to be delivered. In a couple weeks Elliot will preach from I Thessalonians 2 where Paul writes, (1 Thessalonians 2:3–6)
For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 4 On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority.

Paul was not trying to impress. He was not trying to get people to put a lot of money in the offering plate after he preached. He was not trying to make himself greater than he was. He was not interested in manipulating people with his message so they would do what he wanted them to do. He was not using the gospel to build his reputation, to build his wealth, to build his own kingdom. The gospel he received from Jesus came with a great cost and he was not going to mistreat this great gift he had received.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Paul was not interested in getting more people to come to church. His passion was for people to surrender to Jesus as he had surrendered to Jesus and to serve him with the passion he served Jesus.

our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.

I have put the Holy Spirit last, out of order in this verse, because without the Holy Spirit nothing of spiritual, eternal importance takes place. Words are just words. There are people who sit in church week after week because their parents make them come or because a spouse tells them they should come. No matter how brilliant the preaching, what is heard is nothing more than words. Some may be interesting, some may be amusing, but they are, in the end, just words. Hospitality, kindness, caring, helping, encouraging are all much appreciated but it is when the Holy Spirit works in the use of our spiritual gifts that they come with power into the life of someone. It is the Holy Spirit who feeds us, who leads us into truth, who helps us with the words we use to express the thoughts he brings to us. It is the Holy Spirit who brings deep change into our lives with power.

Without the Holy Spirit all that we do in ministry is an empty shell.

For this reason, the most important thing you can do if you want to be a witness for Jesus in the world is to deepen the intimacy of your relationship with Christ. We all need to have a deep abiding stream of living water that flows in us and reminds us we are deeply loved. This does not come instantly. It develops with time as we abide with Christ.

How did the gospel of Jesus come to you? Take some time to thank God for the people who brought the good news of Jesus to you. Take time to pray for them. If you can, send them an email or call them and thank them.

How do you explain to someone who asks you about why you follow Jesus? Spend some time thinking about this. Write down your thoughts. If you need help, let Elliot or me know and we can direct you to some books that will help you. It has been quite a few years since we have done the Alpha Course at RIC. The youth group went through the youth version of this a couple years ago. If you are interested, that is a great course to help you understand what you believe and why you believe.

What spiritual gifts have you been given? Work on developing these gifts. Experiment with gifts you think you might have. Use them. These are tools that will take the gospel with power into the lives of others.

How deeply are you convinced about what you believe? How would you describe your relationship with Christ? Where are you more focused – on developing your ministry skills? Or deepening your relationship with Jesus? Focus on Jesus. Without a living relationship, all you have is a show. No matter how polished your ministry, no matter how spectacular the use of gifts of prophecy, healing, and deliverance – without a living relationship with Jesus all you have is an entertaining magic show.

The gospel you have received is the most precious gift it is possible to receive. Treat it with honor and respect. Know you are deeply loved by the one who made the gift possible and serve him with all your heart, soul, and mind.