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A Step in the Right Direction ( chapter 1)
One Step at a Time
A Step in the Right Direction
1 Thessalonians 1
 
This morning we are starting a brand-new sermon series from the book of First Thessalonians in the New Testament. Before I introduce the theme and look at the first chapter, I want to provide you with some general information about the book that will help you understand the approach I'm taking in teaching it to you. 
 
There are four primary things you need to know. 
 
First, this is one of the oldest books in the New Testament. Scholars date it at approximately 50-51 A.D., meaning that it was written only 18 years after Jesus’ life and death.
 
That is important because here we find one of the earliest pictures available to us of the Christian church in the very beginning. It is, in fact, our earliest missionary document. The only books that may be older than 1 Thessalonians are Galatians and James which may only be a couple of years earlier. 
 
Second, not only is it one of the oldest books in the New Testament, it is one of the shortest books also.  It contains only 79 verses.
 
Third, it is one of the easiest books to understand. Everything Paul writes here is simple, clear, and direct. It is not a doctrinal presentation that deals with hard questions. It is not full of deep theology exploring complicated subjects.  It is a short letter to a young church. 
And fourth, it is one of the most practical books in the New Testament. In five short chapters Paul deals with a wide range of truth. He deals with topics like what it means to be saved, integrity, compassion, the Word of God, heavenly rewards, suffering, prayer, moral purity, hard work, the Second Coming of Christ, the role of spiritual leaders, dealing with difficult people, and testing spiritual gifts.
 
Because it is so clear, it is a great book to preach and study. It is also a wonderful book for new believers to read. Everyone can understand its message.
 
Now just to set the scene for its writing, we need a little background.  Acts 17:1-9 records the story of the founding of the church in Thessalonica. The city of Thessalonica was a seaport town in ancient Greece. As such, it was an important crossroads for East-West travel. The port contained a superb harbor that attracted ships from every part of the Mediterranean Sea.
 
The famous Egnatian Way (a highway system) that connected Rome with Asia to the east passed through Thessalonica. Thus it was a strategic center. Whatever happened there would soon spread everywhere.
 
The population consisted of four main groups: Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Orientals. Most of the people were idol-worshiping pagans. The Apostle Paul visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey.
 
After preaching in the local synagogue for “three Sabbaths”, which might mean around 15 days or it might mean his stayed, however long, allowed him to preach on three Sabbaths that were not consecutive, he was forced to leave town under pressure from the Jews who stirred up the local rabble.
 
Paul’s brief ministry resulted in a small congregation made up mostly of converted Greeks along with a few believing Jews and some leading women of the town. It was clearly a predominately Gentile congregation.
 
In order to understand the letter you need to know one important fact: Paul left Thessalonica before he really wanted to. His premature leaving caused many of the younger believers to wonder about him and his ministry and some were tempted to give up their faith under the continuing pressure.
 
After leaving Thessalonica Paul went to Athens. From Athens he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the church was doing while he went on to Corinth alone. Timothy eventually reported back to Paul regarding the state of the young church.
 
Evidently he told Paul that the church was doing well but was under intense pressure to give in. Certain rumors against Paul were being spread because he left town so suddenly. There were also various moral and doctrinal problems in the church.
 
Although Paul wanted to return, circumstances prevented him. So he wrote a letter of encouragement to this young church. That letter is the book we call 1 Thessalonians.
Now to me, this letter reveals the heart of Paul more than any other letter he wrote. If you want to know what he believed, read Romans but if you want to know what he was like as a person, read 1 Thessalonians.
 
Listen to how the letter begins:
 
1 Thessalonians 1:1-3
 
How encouraging these opening words must have been to that young congregation made up entirely of new believers. Everything Paul writes is meant to lift their spirits. They were the “church in God.” They knew the Lord Jesus Christ. They had experienced the grace and peace of God. Paul prayed for them. He thanked God for them always.
 
Consider the Christian graces he mentions: the work that comes from faith, the labor motivated by their love, the endurance that flowed from their hope. That trio is one of Paul's favorites.  You will hear it quite often in his correspondence with the churches and it is an accurate comprehension of the whole of the Christian life, which begins in faith, continues in love, and culminates in the hope of eternal life.
 
If the Thessalonians wondered how Paul felt about them, and if they were tempted to doubt the work of God in their midst, they need only read and re-read these opening verses. God had been powerfully at work in those few brief weeks at Thessalonica and Paul makes that fact abundantly clear.
 
 
 
Then, following this introduction, Paul begins the body of the letter, and it's as if he says to this young congregation, "It is obvious God is at work in and through you.  The foundation is in place.  You've started off on the right foot.  Now just take it one step at a time."
 
And it is that phrase I would suggest as a theme for our study.  The truth is, the Christian life isn't all learned and lived at one time, then applied as we grow older.  We are living out this journey and we live it one step at a time.  We learn and grow and mature as those lessons are introduced to us.  So for the next few Sundays, we'll walk with Paul through this letter "One Step at a Time."
 
Now, you know any journey begins with the first step, and in the Christian life, that step is conversion.  And let me quickly insert, any time anybody gives their life to Christ, that is a step in the right direction.  No matter where you are or what you're doing, whether you are upright and moral, or downright ornery, if you've never been converted to Christ, then salvation is a step in the right direction.
 
In his book called Life As It Was Meant to Be , Lloyd Ogilvie writes, “The great need today is for the conversion of religious people who, though they believe in God, are heading away from Him and not toward Him.” 
 
He goes on to say that authentic conversion always comes in response to God’s call and always results in a radical reorientation of the whole life. It changes our direction and that change stands the test of time.
So that's where Paul begins his letter.  Step by step, Paul reviews how these former pagans became fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
 
Even though I stopped reading at verse 3 a moment ago, Paul doesn't stop there.  Verse 4 actually continues a thought that is begun in verse 2 and the through is continued in verse 5, so let's go back and read it in its entirety. 
 
verses 2-5
 
Paul starts with
 
1. The Preparation For Conversion
 
Like any good teacher Paul starts at the very beginning. In verses 4 and 5, Paul answers the question, “What must happen first?” regarding salvation. 
 
He gives two answers to that question. In order for a person to be converted two things must happen first—something from God’s side and something from the human side. And God’s side must always come first.
 
Notice, on the divine side, he says,
 
verse 4
 
So what must happen first before you can be saved?  The answer is, God must choose you. In theological terms, this is the doctrine of election, which simply means that God chooses those who will be saved. Salvation begins with God’s choice of us—not with our choosing God.
What did Jesus say in John 15;16?  "You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you and ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit."
 
Paul repeated the thought in his second letter to the Thessalonians when he said, in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and following, "But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. And it was for this that He called you through our gospel that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ."
 
You may swallow hard when you think about God choosing those who are saved, you may resist it or want to argue with it, but the clear, unarguable truth of God's Word is that He chooses those who will be saved. 
 
Someone says, "Well, it's not fair that some are chosen and others aren't.  What isn't fair is that anybody gets to be saved.  Those who argue against election sometimes do it as if they deserved to be saved.  But we need to be reminded, if anybody gets saved, it is only by the grace of God and the election of God flows from the love of God and is made possible by the grace of God.  
 
That’s why Paul calls these new believers “beloved brothers”.  Election is not a device for sending men to hell but for rescuing them from hell made possible by a loving God.
 
 
 
I do not claim to understand all the mysteries of this doctrine but it teaches me two things for sure:
 
1) Salvation is a work of God, not man, and
2) all true believers are eternally secure.
 
One of the great go-to verses in the book of Romans is Romans 8:28 which says, "For we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose."
 
And please notice, it is "the called according to His purpose" who are in focus there.  But please don't leave out the remainder of the passage which says,
 
"For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. Moreover, whom he predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
 
Listen: The security of our salvation is firmly rooted in the election of God.  And that means, on the divine side, conversion begins with the work of God in eternity and His divine choice to save men and women.
 
Now, lest we should become unbalanced, Paul immediately adds the human side of conversion.
 
verse 5a
 
God’s election was made effective through the preaching of the gospel to the Thessalonians.
The Word was preached with the power of the Holy Spirit, producing deep conviction in the hearts of the hearers.  When he says it,  “did not come to you in word only,” notice, that is small "w" word and it is a reference to human words or speech.  In other words, he didn't just show up with some memorized speech or some evangelistic presentation.  Nor did he rely on the cleverness of rhetoric to convince them.  There was more to it than that.
 
Have you ever wondered why two people can hear the same message and respond in opposite ways? It happens because one man heard words while the other man heard the message. It is the Holy Spirit who takes human words in preaching and makes them “come alive” inside the human heart.
 
This to me is the wonder and glory and divine serendipity of preaching. Sunday by Sunday.  I never know how people will respond. All I know is that as I preach God promises that His Word will never return void. It will always accomplish his purpose. But I never know in advance who my sermons will touch.
 
But I have noticed this:  Those elected by God keep showing up and responding to where the gospel is being preached!  That’s why we ought to pray for the preaching of the Word to be accompanied with the power of the Spirit. For without that power, even the best preaching is useless to change the human heart.
 
Next Paul moves to
 
2. The Evidence of Conversion
 
verses 5b-8
In these verses he answers the question, “What should we look for?” There are three answers to that question and they all revolve around how you respond to the Word of God.
 
He begins with
 
- Receiving the Word
 
verses 5b-6
 
Notice the little phrase “much affliction". The word literally means to be “pressed to the limit.” It has the idea of being under the thumb of another person, feeling the pressure pushing you down.
 
But notice, they "received the word". The thought is the idea of opening your home and heart to another person. In other words, the Thessalonians were so glad to be saved they couldn’t be stopped, not even by persecution.  True conversion means that you continue to follow Christ even when the going gets rough.
 
Listen:  Jesus never invites us to receive him on a trial basis, although some try to do just that. In the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” True conversion means that you continue to follow Christ even when the going gets rough.
 
Next he talks about
 
- Living the Word
 
verse 7
Thessalonica was the capital city of the province of Macedonia so anything that happened there would eventually spread across the region. Just as people talk about what happens in Chicago or Hollywood or New York, they were talking about what was happening in Thessalonica.
 
The word “examples” is a Greek word which literally refers to the impression left by a piece of metal when pressed into clay.
 
Now that results in a couple of things.  First, it impacts evangelism.  The best way to win others is by the example of your own changed life. Remember what Jesus said to the man who wanted to accompany him on his travels, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you” (Mark 5:19).
 
We all know that a satisfied customer is always the best advertisement for any product. The best place for you to make an impact for Christ is right where you are. You don’t have to go overseas to be a missionary. You can start by living for Christ and showing others the difference he makes on a daily basis.
 
But more specific to the text, Paul says you have become examples to "all . . .who believe."  And here the idea, more than evangelism, is encouragement.  I don't know about you, but faithful Christians encourage me.  I've been around plenty of those who get enough religion on Sunday to last them all week. 
 
One of the greatest frustration a pastor can encounter is people who are apathetic and anemic in their faith.
 
But these Christians in Thessalonica were there through thick and thin.  It didn't matter if they were being persecuted.  It didn't matter if family and friends had forsaken them.  It didn't matter if they had suffered financially for their faith.  They stood out as examples of what a true follower looks like to the lost and to the saved. 
 
Then Paul talks about  
 
- Speaking the Word
 
verse 8
 
Now Paul gets to the evangelistic impact they were having.  I find it interesting that the evangelistic impact is mentioned after the testimony to the believers.  By the way, it's always that way. 
 
I've never known an effective witness for Christ who was not a faithful servant of Christ.  Why?  It is because their words carry no weight.  Their testimony has no impact.  Their words aren't backed up by their life. 
 
But when Paul talks about the Thessalonians, he says their impact on the region "sounded forth.” The word he uses is that of someone in the orchestra striking a cymbal or gong.  As the Thessalonians shared Christ, the message reverberated throughout the entire region.
 
Just as whatever happens in major cities in the world today is heard around the world, in the same way, whatever was shaking down in Thessalonica was soon talked about in the entire region.
 
In the words of one commentator, “The Thessalonians sounded ‘Reville’ and the whole province woke up.”
 
Here, then, is the evidence of conversion clearly explained. First you receive God’s Word gladly, then you live it on a daily basis. As you do, the message of the gospel encourages fellow believers and reverberates in every direction to that those around you begin to sit up and take notice.
 
Our passage contains one final truth regarding conversion and that is 
 
3. The Testimony to Conversion
 
Verses 9-10
 
So how does it happen?  How is a person converted?   
in these two verses, Paul describes what has been rightly called the Three Tenses of the Christian Life. They describe the past, the present, the future of those who have been converted.
 
First, he mentions
 
- the Past
 
They had turned from idols.  Some, and maybe all of these Thessalonians believers had been idol-worshipers before coming to Christ.  But somehow,  their lives were absolutely transformed. 
So how had it happened? They “turned to God.” This is what conversion means. This is what it is all about. The Bible sometimes uses the term “repentance” to describe this act.
 
In the Old Testament there are two Hebrew words for repentance. The first is a word that means to turn around or to change the mind. When you see the word repent of repentance in the Old Testament, it is usually that word. 
 
The second is a word that is used over 600 times in the Old Testament and is translated by such words as “turn,” “return,” “seek,” “restore.” It’s very important because you see it very often in phrases like “to turn to the Lord with all your heart.”
 
When you come to the New Testament there is one primary word and that is a word that means “to change the mind.”
 
Repentance fundamentally means to change your mind about something. It has to do with the way you think about something. You’ve been thinking one way, but now you think the opposite way. That’s repentance—the changing of the mind.
 
Let's illustrate that.  Suppose a man wants to learn how to parachute. So he goes to a parachute school and they show him how to rig up his gear, how to pull the rip cord, how to land safely. Finally the day comes when they take him up in an airplane. He’s scared to death but he’s afraid to let on.
 
The moment comes when he is to jump. He goes to the door of the airplane and looks down 2,500 to the ground.
His legs grow weak, he’s about to throw up, and somebody behind him is trying to push him out of that airplane. At the last second he says, “No. I’m not going to do it.” They say, “Go ahead, you can do it.” He says, “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to jump.” And he doesn’t. That man has repented. He’s changed his mind in a decisive way.
 
That story helps because it illustrates how repentance works. Repentance is a change in the way I think that leads to change in the way I live.
 
When you really change your mind about something, It’s going to change the way you think about it, talk about it, feel about it and act about it.
 
That means true repentance is more than just a little game you play in your mind. It's more than just raising your hand in an invitation or walking down the aisle and talking to the preacher or even saying a prayer. 
 
Repentance is a decisive change in direction. It’s a change of mind which leads to a change of thinking which leads to a change of attitude which leads to a change of feeling which leads to a change of values which leads to a change in the way I lead my life.
 
Repentance means you were going one way in your life and now you are going in another. That’s why the typical Old Testament word for repentance is “turn.” Turning is always involved in repentance. It’s a change of mind which leads to a change of direction.
 
 
Conversion begins when you turn to God. It is nothing more or less than “an intentional turning of oneself to God.” Because it is intentional it does not happen by accident. Nor does it happen automatically. Nor can anyone else turn for you. You yourself must decide to turn to God. No one can make that decision for you.
 
And in the past, these Thessalonians believers turned from idols, and notice they turned to God.
 
You can have your idols or you can have God but you can’t have both. To the Thessalonians this was literally true since Greek religion was filled with idols of various kinds.
 
 All the heroic gods who supposedly dwelt on Mount Olympus were nothing more than detestable idols. The religion built upon these idols was degrading, obscene, and perverse. It generated fear, vengeance, immorality, demonism, and slavery. This idolatry was the foundation for government, religion, amusements, social clubs, and everyday labor. It permeated every aspect of society.
 
For a Christian to reject all that and follow Jesus Christ meant rejecting the very foundation of society itself. Yet that is what Jesus calls men to do and that is what the Thessalonians had done.
 
It’s important to remember that not all idols are made of wood or stone or metal. We have our idols today—only they are more sophisticated, that’s all. An idol is anything in the world which we look to as an ultimate source of value.
 
Thus a job, a house, a car, a title, a position, a possession, a prized relationship—any of these may become idols when we look to them for our sense of worth and values.
 
Remember, the sin is not in the wood or metal or stone. Those things were and are morally neutral. Even the carvings or images themselves were not sinful. It is the meaning or value attached to them that becomes sinful. In that sense anything good may easily become and idol.
 
So in the past, they turned from idols to God.
 
Next, he talks about
 
- the Present
 
And please notice, they not only turned to God from idols, but the turn resulted in them
 
"serving the living and true God."
 
Conversion fundamentally involves a change of Gods. Where once you served sin and self, now you serve the living and true God. Where once you bowed down to the idols of pleasure, power, material gain and worldly approval, now you bow the knee to Jesus Christ. Where once you served the dead gods of this world, now you serve the living God. Once you followed falsehood, now you serve the true God.
 
This in many ways sums up the whole truth of the Christian life. We are here to serve God day by day and moment by moment.
 
We are his servants, put here to do his bidding, acting on his behalf, always seeking his best interests and hoping always to please him. No one is truly a free moral agent. You either serve self or you serve God.
 
Conversion affects the past, the present and
 
- the Future
 
verse 10
 
See how the process works?  In the past, they repented by turning from idols to God.  The change is evident right now as they serve the living and true God and wait for His return from heaven.
 
By the way, He is returning. The Second Coming of Christ is not some arbitrary doctrine that is up for debate  or that we choose to believe or not depending on our preference.
 
These early Christians were committed to the fact that just as surely as Jesus resurrected from the grave, just as surely as they had been delivered from hell, just as surely as He had ascended back to heaven, Jesus would return!
 
In simple terms, as Christians, we turn, we serve, and we wait for Jesus to return. This tells us that It is the fundamental motivation for the entire Christian life.
 
To put it as simply as I know how,  vonversion is an act of God that begins in eternity with his choice of me.
 
That choice is made real in my life by the proclamation of the gospel by Spirit-empowered men and women who speak with full conviction.
 
Once I respond to what God has initiated, it results in a radically changed life  built upon receiving, living and speaking the Word of God with the ultimate demonstration of that being a turning in my life from every idol to the true and living God marked by a life of service to God as I wait for the return of Christ. 
 
And in that regard, either you are converted or you aren’t. You have turned or you haven’t. Unless you are converted you will never go to heaven.
 
The Christian life begins with conversion! Without conversion there is no Christian life and if you are not converted, you are not a Christian at all.
 
He was born in 1725, the son of an English sea captain. At the age of 11 he went to sea for the first time. He was forced to join the Royal Navy, tried to escape but was arrested in West Africa. He became the slave of a white slavetrader’s black wife. For two years he lived in hunger and destitution.
 
He eventually became a slave-ship captain, taking black Africans to the Mediterranean and the West Indies. In 1747 he boarded a ship for England but a violent storm in the North Atlantic hit the ship, which began to fill with water. The timbers broke away from the side. An ordinary ship would have gone to the bottom immediately but they were carrying a local of beeswax and wool which were lighter than water.
 
In the midst of the struggle to save the ship, the young man said to himself almost without thinking, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us.” By his own word it was the first desire for mercy he had felt in many years. That was the turning point of his life.
 
He eventually left the slave trade and entered the ministry in Olney, England. He soon became known as a great preacher who attracted enormous crowds. He wrote nearly 300 hymns—most of which have long since been forgotten. But some we still sing, with the best known being perhaps the most famous hymn of all time. Around the world millions sing it in dozens of languages:
 
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
 
  That saved a wretch like me
 
I once was lost, but now am found
 
  Was blind but now I see.
 
Before he died, he prepared his own epitaph, which reads this way:
 
John Newton, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.
 
That’s what God can do. That’s true conversion. That’s what some of us need right now.
 
I urge you to turn to God from the idols of your heart. If you have the slightest desire, turn. If you want to be converted, turn. If you seek a new life, turn.
 
Have you ever been converted? If the answer is no or if you are not sure, with all that is in me I urge to turn to God. Turn from your sin. Turn from your idols. Turn from your past. Turn from your self-worship. Turn from all that is evil. Turn to God and say, “Lord Jesus, I transfer my trust to you as my Savior and Lord.” I pray that you will do it today.
 
Let's pray.
 
 
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